Environmental Justice for Cleaning Workers Campaign

Each day, more than 30,000 custodians, janitors and house cleaners wash and strip floors, disinfect toilets and shine furniture in public and commercial buildings and homes throughout Massachusetts. The products they use, their workload, and the safety measures they are provided and trained in, can have a significant impact on the health of those who clean the buildings and the children and adults who occupy them.

"It is very important for our workers to know about the chemicals we use," said Anvil, a cleaning worker at a downtown Boston commercial building. Anvil and several co-workers suffered from eye burns from the chemicals used to clean the building's toilets. "We have a right to this information. It's our health that's at stake."

MassCOSH's Environmental Justice for Cleaning Workers Campaign engages cleaning workers and allies in campaigns to achieve safe, healthy working conditions. The project involves a three-tiered environmental health action model: (1) participatory action research to document conditions, (2) organizing to promote safe, healthy working conditions, and (2) public policy advocacy to promote green cleaning in schools and buildings across the state.

Cleaning work is associated with high rates of illness among the workers and their children. Data from numerous studies show that cleaning workers suffer:

  • High rates of occupational asthma, high-grade or late-state bladder tumors, and aggressive prostate tumors.
  • Among the highest rates of heart attack deaths and early death from motor neuron disease.
  • Increased risk of cancer of the lower urinary tract and chemical burns.
  • Women cleaning workers are twice as likely as other female workers to suffer pre-term delivery and stillbirth.
  • The children of male cleaning workers have increased risk of birth defects and Down Syndrome.

Cleaning workers, the vast majority of whom are immigrants and people of color, comprise one of the largest populations of service employees. Over the past twenty years, the U.S. cleaning industry has reduced costs by replacing secure full-time direct employment with contracted out, part-time and contingent positions. Cleaning workers are often forced to work at least two jobs to earn enough money to care for their families. They can neither afford to lose their jobs due to a work-related illness nor can they risk being fired for speaking up about unhealthy conditions.

Partnering for change

The Environmental Justice for Cleaning Workers Campaign is successful as a result of the strong partnerships with unions, community groups, health and safety professionals, and university and environmental partners:

    To improve the environmental health conditions for janitors, MassCOSH works with the Service Employees International Union Local 615 and its non profit arm, the Voice and Future Fund.
    To promote green cleaning in Boston's Public Schools, MassCOSH partners with the Boston School Custodial Union, and the Boston Urban Asthma Coalition (BUAC), as well as community health programs, such as the Boston Urban Asthma Initiative.
    To foster green cleaning among non-profit housing development organizations, MassCOSH collaborates with community development corporations, such as Urban Edge and Viet AID

Custodians for environmental health

In 2005, custodians in four Boston Public Schools successfully led pilot projects substituting hazardous cleaning products with "green" cleaning products, targeting schools with high rates of asthma. MassCOSH, worked in partnership with the BUAC, the Boston Custodial Union and the Boston Public Schools Department to develop and evaluate the pilots, paving the way for city-wide green schools.

"Custodians care about the health of children and teachers, and about their own health and safety," said Michael Lafferty, Business Representative for the Painters & Allied Trade District Council 35, the School Custodial Union. "We hope that this pilot proves effective so that we can have green cleaners in all public school buildings."

In 2006, Boston Public Schools announced that it would change its contracts to purchase only green products in the future. Now MassCOSH is working with a new city-wide Healthy Schools Taskforce to ensure that the green cleaning program is effective. It is hoped that the taskforce can use its lessons to impact other school environmental programs and policies (i.e. pest control). Green school success stories: Healthy Schools | New Dream

Workplace justice for janitors

Since 2004, janitors who clean the subways, Logan Airport, residential, and commercial buildings have worked with MassCOSH and the Service Employees International Union Local 615 to document and address a wide range of workplace hazards. These can range from toxic chemicals in cleaning solutions to biological hazards in waste, such as blood. Learn about potential chemical hazards.

Worker surveys revealed that these janitors typically worked without training in the safe use of chemicals or knowing the risks from exposure, and were rarely supplied with protective equipment.

"When I worked at the Ritz, nobody had received training in the use of chemicals or the equipment needed to protect them," said Nelson Pineda, a janitor who cleans luxury condominium complexes and a member of SEIU Local 615. "But when MassCOSH put out a report on the working conditions, the company began to give training and the needed protective equipment."

By drawing attention to unsafe conditions and advocating for change, workers and SEIU 615 have been able to achieve important improvements:

  • The MBTA and a major condominium developer replaced their contractors with union employers committed to ensuring safe conditions;
  • The contractor responsible for cleaning the airport agreed to eliminate the most hazardous chemicals and to develop with SEIU and MassCOSH a glass case in several terminals, displaying the new chemicals and information about how to use them safely.
  • Health and safety educational materials have been integrated into the stewards' training manual provided by SEIU Local 615.

Green cleaning for CDCs

In August 2005, MassCOSH helped Urban Edge develop and implement a green cleaning initiative. Urban Edge sought assistance in designing a program to develop a centralized purchasing system that would replace all their existing cleaning products with those that are healthier for the environment as well as custodial staff, residents, and other users of their buildings.

MassCOSH conducted a baseline survey to provide an assessment of Urban Edge's cleaning products and practices. The survey indicated a need to provide training on product disposal, storage as well as general health and safety issues. MassCOSH conducted a training with custodial staff and property managers, where the results of the survey and the benefits of switching to safer, less toxic alternatives were discussed.

View Urban Edge's Cleaning Guidelines