Chemical Cleaning Spray Kills Police Officer – A Tragic Lesson in Chemical Safety

The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that a Chicago police officer died from lung disease caused by “inhalation of noxious fumes.” The fumes came from a cleaning chemical spray often used in the roll call room while the officer was present. According to reporter Kim Janssen, the officer was exposed to fumes on March 7, 2011, was hospitalized the next day and died less than a month later. The article states that the spraying of cleaning chemicals during roll call was a frequent routine and that the officer suffered from asthma as a child, it said no other persons were affected and that the identity of the cleaning product has not been released. That is all that is known at this point.

Still, from the information given, it is not difficult to imagine how the events may have unfolded in one’s head. An officer reports for duty, assembles with other officers in a room for the daily briefing, a cleaning person skirts around the assembly, half-noticed, quickly and silently completing his or her task. A cleaning chemical is sprayed and a few people notice the strong smell but quickly dismiss it thinking the spray must not be that harmful or the amount they’re being exposed to is negligible. Besides, they might think, it’s like this every day; nothing’s ever come of it. The cleaning person wouldn’t be using the cleaning spray in this way it if it were dangerous. And in this way, these and other assumptions pile up so that the true hazards of the situation are either unknown or ignored. It is not difficult to imagine, because it is a series of events and assumptions that we have probably all been guilty of.

This tragic story has many lessons to teach us. First and foremost, it reminds us that we live in a chemical world. Even those of us in careers that have seemingly nothing to do with hazardous chemicals may find, if we look, that in the course of our day we are routinely exposed to harmful levels of dangerous chemicals. This point was driven home to me this year when the Chicago Tribune did a series of reports on the harmful levels of diesel fumes present in the train station I frequent and in the cars of the commuter trains I ride daily to and from work.

Another lesson the story teaches is that we cannot leave our safety to the discretion of others. In Janssen’s article, she reported that the officer who died told his partner the same day as his last exposure that “They shouldn’t be spraying when we are in there.” How long he felt that way, whether he ever mentioned it to anyone else was not reported. However, if the officer could have known that his exposure to the cleaning chemical would lead to his death, is there any doubt that he would have 1) made his concerns known to management and 2) taken action to limit his exposure? It is unlikely that armed with that knowledge he would have left his life in someone else’s hands. And by saying that, I do not mean to place any blame on the officer. His death, in this manner, is a heartbreaking conclusion to his admirable choice of vocations. As the son of a police officer, my thoughts are with his family.

Finally, there are several lessons for employers and the users of the chemicals. One of the questions MSDSonline gets asked most frequently is “Do I need an MSDS for a consumer product?” to which there is no quick and easy reply. If you are using a product in the manner prescribed on the consumer product, and in a quantity that does not go beyond “average” usage, then the answer is probably no. If you are using a consumer product in a manner or quantity that goes beyond the average use, then the answer is yes. More than that, if you are an employer and you are using a consumer chemical product in your workplace at quantities and in ways that exceed the average consumer, you may be responsible under OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to implement a hazardous chemical management program.

The questions OSHA is no doubt asking the police department and cleaning company include:

  • What chemicals are you using and in what quantities?
  • What are the hazards of those chemicals?
  • Do you have an MSDS?
  • Is the chemical properly labeled?
  • Do you have a written HCS plan?
  • Are the employees that use the chemical trained on the hazards of the chemicals and how to prevent exposure?
  • Are all employees who come in contact with the chemical aware of their dangers and do they have right-to-know access to MSDSs and other safety precautions?

Rather than wait for OSHA to show up after a tragic incident, those are the same questions every employer and employee should be asking themselves right now – are there any hidden dangers or chemical exposures that could be putting me, my co-workers, or my employees at risk? If the answer is yes, don't wait for tragedy to strike, take action.