Green Supermarkets? Janitors Push the Next Wave of Healthy Workplaces

When supermarket janitors in Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) rallied last month at Safeway and Lucky stores in San Jose, Calif., they weren't only demanding improved wages and health benefits. They were calling for the adoption of green cleaning standards to make their jobs safer.


Earlier this year, SEIU janitors in Southern California made similar demands. Union members even dressed up as fruits and vegetables and picketed outside the 2009 National Grocers Association Convention in Las Vegas. They were calling attention to the safety of chemicals used to clean supermarkets.

Putting green cleaning standards on the agenda with wages and benefits is evidence that one of the country’s largest unions is broadening its idea of a safe and healthy workplace.

“[Green cleaning] has become more of a priority at the bargaining table as everyone’s consciousness begins to rise about the importance of having a green work environment,” said national SEIU spokesperson Avril Smith.

“The health impacts of chemicals are front and center, and the problems are significant,” said SEIU spokesperson Rachele Huenneknes. “We don’t often see on a contract survey, literally 100 percent of workers saying, ‘I get a headache when I use these chemicals,’ and 100 percent saying, ‘No, I don’t have gloves.’ That’s the reason why at this particular time, there’s a push.”

Martha Aragon has been working as a janitor for Safeway in Roseville, Calif., for three years. She said the chemicals she uses to clean floors, break rooms, bathrooms and offices give her headaches and irritate her nose.

“I’ve gotten sick, too,” Aragon said. “I’m breaking my silence about it because it’s so common for workers to have symptoms like nausea, headaches, breathing problems and rashes because of the chemicals used.”

Green cleaning standards entails not only the use of nontoxic products, she said, but also proper training on how to dilute and dispose of chemicals, and equipment like safety goggles and gloves.

Safeway janitor Humberto Villa said “strippers” he used to clean floors caused him to have nosebleeds.

“We use a wax remover, but we’re not told what chemical we’re using,” he said. “We also use bleach. I mix it myself. I know it’s bleach, but I don’t know how strong it is. My eyes water and [my] nose hurts, too.”

Villa said after five months on the job, his employer hasn’t provided him with any protective gear or training.

A spokesperson for Save Mart, the parent company of Lucky, refused to give information about the company’s worker health and safety policy, and said the company declined to comment during labor negotiations. Safeway did not return calls seeking similar information.

Aragon and Villa said the use of nontoxic cleaners in stores would be safer around food and healthier for consumers.

Cynthia Knowles, a toxics reduction specialist with the San Francisco Department of the Environment, said SEIU workers are right to appeal to consumers, who are becoming savvier about toxics in consumer products.

She said consumers can thank workers for that because much of what is known about chemicals in consumer products comes from workplace exposure data.

“Workers use products for hours on end, every day. They are constantly being bombarded with chemicals,” Knowles said. “It’s interesting the workers are drawing attention to workplace conditions … that’s exciting, because there’s a lot of information they can use; there’s a lot of change that they can make that has been made by others.”

One example is San Francisco’s green purchasing program (San Francisco Environment), which includes an approved list of nontoxic commercial cleaners. Janitors who clean city-owned buildings such as libraries, schools and offices, in some cases, are required to use products from the approved list.

Products are vetted, and whenever possible those with safer ingredients are used. For example, hydrogen peroxide works as a disinfectant instead of ammonium quaternary compounds, which may irritate the nose, throat and skin. The approved product list includes zinc-free floor strippers, which according to the Web site, do not contain chemicals that cause cancer or birth defects or that burn the eyes or skin.

Other institutions have adopted green cleaning standards to protect worker health, including local governments, schools, prisons, office buildings and janitorial services companies. SEIU is following the trend.

“We’re making this a priority, something that our union is committed to across janitorial sectors, and not just our janitors,” said Denise Solis, SEIU director of janitorial division.

"It’s really something whose time has come," said Alicia Culver, director of the Green Purchasing Institute. She said green cleaners are now readily available and high-performing.

"Workers are happier with green cleaning program," said Culver, who has made presentations to school districts and custodial workers. "They learn how to accurately dilute chemicals and they use microfiber mops that are more ergonomic and allow them to clean much easier and faster." Microfiber mops and cloths allow workers to clean with less chemicals or water.

Workers like Aragon are driving change within the union.

“Health benefits and wages are always a top concern, but chemicals and the safety issue are right up there,” she said. “I like my job. I’m only asking my employer to consider green chemicals. It’s better for health and the environment. I want them to consider the human aspect. The chemicals are affecting a huge number of people.”

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