It’s the Wild, Wild West of Cleaning Chemicals and Containers Out Here.  

3 Simple Steps to Avoid Costly Safety AND Cleanliness Errors

Pre-pandemic, one of the things I would do when touring a potential job site is casually peek under the sinks in the break rooms, restrooms and in the janitors closets to scope their chemical sitch.  Invariably, I found a conglomeration of old empty bottles, dust covered relics left over from three cleaners ago, residential chemical someone brought from home one day because “it smells bad in the bathroom” (gee, I wonder why), and the dreaded cache of off-brand chemicals from the dollar store brought in by the poor girl who got hired as a sub-contractor and isn’t really being paid enough to cover her commute, let alone the cost of the chemicals she just found out she has to buy herself out of her meager pay.

During this walk through, I would mention that we’d straighten that up for them, maintain our own non-caustic, non-reactive product and our own SDS hard copy on site.  They would shrug and generally not care much. No one saw the problem the way I did. 

Now however, the stakes have changed mightily. 

In March of 2020, every single office manager and well meaning cube dweller rushed to every store they could find, gobbling up products without regard to composition or usefulness. I walked into more than one of my current contract cleaning customers’ offices to find them furiously mixing 5 gallon buckets of bleach water.  

“Why on Earth are you doing that?” I would ask. 

“Making disinfectant!  I saw it on The Today Show!”  Super proud of themselves.  Working without gloves, dunking random spray bottles with and without labels for other chemical, on a break room table, above carpet, splashing all over themselves and the upholstery on the chairs.

Trying so hard not to sigh, “Please stop.  You already have coronavirus effective chemicals stocked on site.” 

Incredulous “We do?!?”


“What should I do with this then?”

“Perhaps try not to spill it on the carpet on the way to the drain.”  Actually letting out a sigh this time, because I know it will be better for everyone if I drop what I’m doing and take over this mess because I am going to be the one responsible when they ask repeatedly what can be done about the bleached spots all over everything and the answer will always be, not much really. 

Step #1 Forge a trusting relationship with your BSC – and then TRUST THEIR RECOMMENDATIONS.

For years, we told everyone what chemicals we use.  We told them what chemical, if any, would be maintained on their sites for our cleaners to use.  We told them where the SDS folder would be, and that our employees use an app that has all of the SDS so they have instant access to them on their phones. 

We also asked them what cleaning chemicals, if any, they required to be onsite for their staff to use and either stock those for them, or simply ensure that their chemicals will not react with any of ours.  They occasionally asked for a disinfectant to be stocked in the restrooms or break rooms.  For the most part, people would smile and nod, ask for a discount, and move along.  

In early 2020 however, the whole world decided they needed to run to every grocery store, dollar store, home improvement store and buy every can and bottle of anything that says “Disinfectant” on the label.  I spoke to one chemical rep who told me he sold in one month what he had projected to sell for the entire year.  

I know your Grandma scrubbed her floor on her hands and knees and always used the pine scented one.  I know your Mother ran a tight ship and was a damn fine housekeeper and always used the purple one.  I know.  Believe me, I know.  

But here’s the challenge.  Cleaning a house is not the same as cleaning an office.  Cleaning a house 50 years ago is an entirely different ballgame than keeping 300+ workers in close quarters safe during a pandemic.  

Do you know what chemicals will harm your leather waiting room chairs?  We do.

Do you know what chemicals will etch the paint on your stall dividers and file cabinets?  We do.

Do you know what chemicals will peel the veneer off of your conference room table?  We do.

Do you know what chemicals will interact with the chemicals your BSC is using thereby endangering the cleaners working on your site?  Sure do.

Do you know what common chemicals have ammonia in them?  Windex, sure.  But what else?

Can you name all the chemicals available at your local grocery store that have bleach in them?  It’s not just Clorox and Tilex.

What kind of acids are in your Janitor’s closet at work?  What chemicals interact with them?

Better yet, do you know how to remediate a chemical interaction?  What steps should you take to stop the reaction?  Should you take steps to stop the reaction?  

That’s why it is important, when you are interviewing a BSC to handle your facility janitorial services that you ask, and further, understand what type of chemical management is included in their bid.  This is not some fluffy service that can be cut in the name of cheaper service.

When the world turned upside down at the beginning of the pandemic, of course some folks freaked out a bit.  But our customers were well stocked.  We held meetings with each site to  discuss what type of cleaning processes should be in place for the hours we were not onsite, and essentially delivered a high level chemical safety training course to anyone who needed it – for no additional charge.  Because of our years working in the industry, we have great working relationships with several vendors.  While occasionally there was a wait to order certain things, none of our clients ever went without effective chemical.  

Step #2 Purchase mainly professional grade chemicals from either your BSC or a Jan/San wholesaler 

Okay, before I get too carried away, I do have to admit, I keep a stock of certain residential chemicals for certain specific situations.  Don’t judge me now!  When you are cleaning a college dorm shower stall between semesters, there is nothing better or faster than a can of Scrubbing Bubbles.  When you start working on a construction clean, and the carpenters and electricians and plumbers are still there – before you touch anything, make a bucket of Mr. Clean with some hot water.  Even if you don’t clean a single thing with it, every worker who comes near you will comment, “Oh wow!  Smells clean in here!  You guys are doing a great job!” 

There are many Building Services Contractors who also carry their own line of product, or are affiliated with a specific line of products. It makes sense for them to register as a reseller of chemicals with the manufacturer because they’re using tons. It’s actually one of the little tid-bits of advice you will find when starting your commercial cleaning business, and that’s a great thing for some folks!

For us though, we decided early on not to carry our own line or be a reseller of a specific brand.   Based on our geographic area, and the experiences of several local businesses being burned after dealing with a less than upstanding Jan/San company (who has in the intervening years gone out of business) we felt it best.  It is an ethical thing for us. 

My clients need to trust that my product recommendations are what’s best for them, not what’s best for my pocketbook. 

So, we forged relationships with all the wholesalers. No matter which company was already present on a job site, I could walk in and immediately interface with that vendor on behalf of my cleaning clients.  Commercial chemicals are usually better, safer, cheaper.

With that being said, you still have to keep your eyes open.  Buying directly from a wholesaler can be confusing!  If you decide to handle this relationship yourself without the guidance of your cleaning company, be careful about who is making your recommendations.

A few years ago, we kept walking in to bid sites that had brand new shiny yellow flammable safety cabinets in random places for cleaning chemical storage.  When I would inquire as to why they had such things, it was always something along the lines of, “Yeah, now we store all flammable chemicals in these.  Our first aid provider dropped it off for us.”  

Umm, excuse me?  

Per OSHA 1910.106(e)(2)(ii)[b], the volume of chemicals in storage matters.  Small volumes of flammable liquids may be stored outside flammable safety cabinets or chemical storage lockers.  These liquids must be in containers and contain no more than:

  • 25 gallons of Category 1
  • 120 gallons of Category 2, 3 or 4
  • 660 gallons of Category 2, 3 or 4 in a single portable tank.

I’ll bet they just “dropped it off for you” – and billed your national account a fortune for a product you do not need.  Most of our locations do not have more than four 32oz bottles of any chemical onsite, let alone flammable ones and not nearly the quantities that require a locker.  

And it is not just giant unnecessary charges you have to watch out for.  We had a 5 day per week client who had a national chain service their first aid stations.  This particular company was known for tiny little add-ons.  Two outdoor entry mats would show up unrequested.  A mysterious floor care unit would show up hidden away in a supply closet that no one knew where it came from.  Two dollars a month for a floor rack and $5 a month for each mat doesn’t seem like much.  That is what they are counting on.  

Unscrupulous suppliers make us all look bad.  Yes, most janitorial supply wholesale reps are great people and great sources of cleaning knowledge.  But that one bad apple though…

This is where a BSC can be an invaluable resource.  We know what to look for.  Simply by suggesting a client review their monthly contract line-by-line with their first aid supplier saved that client over $300/month in unnecessary, unrequested charges.  

Step #3 Aside from your mandatory SDS folder, maintain a list of all chemicals kept onsite and their uses.  Review this list yearly at minimum.

It’s a fact.  If you keep unlabeled bottles of chemical in a closet on your customer’s site, someone will stop by, pick up a bottle of urinal cleaner and spray it on their desk.  Then be mad at you when it’s permanently etched.  

But at the same time, I LOVE a customer who takes a minute to clean up on their own!  They make my little cleaner heart so happy!  

We make it easy for folks to clean up the little messes that happen when we are not onsite.  By keeping a simple set of chemicals – clearly labeled with their uses – readily available for anyone who peeks in the closet, we are of service to our customers, even when we are not physically present.  Generally this is three bottles with a clear label, in addition to the manufacturer’s primary label, that says Glass Cleaner or Carpet/Upholstery or Restrooms.  The big boy stuff like urine digester is kept on a lower shelf and not readily available to just grab.

A quick visual guide posted on the wall of the closet or laminated on the cart is also a great idea, not just for casual usage by the customer, but also for training new hires.  

So what about you?  What kinds of chemical problems have you run into during the pandemic?  We’d love to hear your stories as well.

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