Should your workplace use alcohol-free hand sanitiser?

Hand sanitiser

Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, hand sanitiser was a substance that most of us only came across and only thought about in medical environments, such as hospitals and doctors’ surgeries. Elsewhere, it was considered strictly for ‘germaphobes’.

The rise of hand sanitiser in the Covid-19 age

Now, mid-2020, hand sanitiser is a part of everyday life. We use it whenever we go into or out of a shop, a supermarket or any other public space, and we use it at work – whether that’s in a foundry, an office or anywhere in between.

Every employer has a legal duty to protect employees and site-visitors from hazards, and Covid-19 is just a new consideration within that – albeit a huge one. All the same, minimising the risk of Covid-19 transmission isn’t the only challenge that employers should be thinking about in 2020. In fact, if you choose the wrong sort of hand sanitiser for your workplace, there are other – just as serious – safety risks that come to the fore.

Let’s explain.

The fire safety risk of alcohol-containing hand sanitiser

Fire safety is a critical concern for any employer and a key reason why it is a legal requirement that companies must appoint and provide fire warden training for their fire marshals/wardens. And also for any employee who is responsible for health and safety as part of their job. This was the case before Coronavirus, is the case right now during the pandemic and will be the case once we come out the other side.

Alcohol is highly effective at killing germs, which is why it is such a prevalent ingredient in hand sanitisers worldwide. Unfortunately, liquids that have high concentrations of alcohol come with a fire risk: ranging from flammable, to highly flammable, to extremely flammable.

The EU symbol for flammable liquids is as follows:

EU Symbol for Flammable Liquids

The alcoholic hand sanitisers that are currently on the market are classed as either ‘flammable’ or ‘highly flammable’. What’s the difference between those two designations? It comes down to the liquid’s flashpoint – i.e. the temperature at which its vapours are at risk of igniting in air.

Flammable vs. highly flammable

  • Flammable means that the liquid has a flashpoint greater than 21 degrees celsius but lower than or equal to 55 degrees celsius.
  • Highly flammable means that the liquid has a flashpoint below 21 degrees celsius.

This means that if any of your work environments involve open flames/heat sources, flying sparks or anything of that nature, the use of alcoholic hand sanitiser poses a constant risk to fire safety and personal health and safety, because the vapour could conceivably ignite.

Here is what a second-degree burn to the hand looks like:

second degree burn on the hand

First aid: treating a burn in the workplace

Should any employee or visitor be unlucky enough to suffer a burn, the designated first aider(s) should follow these steps:

  1. Help the sufferer away from the heat source ASAP.
  2. Run their hands (or other affected areas) under cool or lukewarm water for at least 20 minutes. Crucially, do not use anything frozen, nor anything containing ice, and do not use anything substance other than water.
  3. During the rinsing process, call the emergency services (or have another employee do so). The severity of a burn should never be judged on how much pain the sufferer appears to be in: always err on the side of caution.
  4. Ensure that any jewellery or clothing that’s close to the burn area is removed – no matter what the material is. However, do not try to remove any jewellery or clothing that is already stuck on; the emergency services will be better equipped to deal with that.
  5. Once rinsed and after the 20 minutes have elapsed, cover the burn with a single layer of cling film (or, if cling film is unavailable, a plastic bag – which is easy to apply to the hands).

Our first aid at work training courses covers how to treat a burn in the workplace.

Work environments that might benefit from alcohol-free sanitiser

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but provides a few common examples:

  • Construction sites (both residential and commercial)
  • Foundries
  • Car/automotive manufacturing plants
  • Kitchens (including – but not limited to – those in restaurants, bars, schools, hospitals)

Any person who carries out hot works – such as welding, soldering, grinding, cutting, burning or any other process that produces sparks – should as a rule use a hand-sanitising solution that is completely free of alcohol, due to the burn risk. Logic does suggest that common hot-work PPE, such as welding gloves and masks, would negate the need for non-alcoholic hand sanitiser, but it cannot be assumed that skin will be covered at all times – and accidents do happen.

Case in point

I was on site delivering a hot works training course for a company that is responsible for repairing gas pipelines. Upon my arrival, I was offered hand sanitiser that I noticed was alcohol-free. Ever curious, I asked whether there was a particular reason for the sanitiser being free of alcohol.

There was a reason: somebody who had used alcohol gel had been unlucky enough to come into contact with a static spark, which ignited the gel and gave them second-degree burns on their hands.

But is alcohol-free sanitiser actually effective against coronavirus?

The verdict

Research into the effectiveness of non-alcoholic hand sanitiser at neutralising Covid-19 is still ongoing. The general consensus does seem to be that hand sanitisers that have an alcohol content of at least 60% are the most effective at killing germs.

However – and it is a big however – the best way any person can protect themselves against Covid-19 is by washing their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

How to prevent burns from alcoholic hand sanitiser

Even though washing hands is scientifically the most effective way to tackle the virus, alcoholic hand sanitiser will of course still be widely used throughout all kinds of workplaces – and there is a way to minimise the risk of burns for everybody.

Whenever an employee applies alcoholic sanitiser, they must wait until the liquid has fully evaporated on their skin (i.e. their hands are completely dry) before they begin or resume work – especially when working next to naked flames or in any other environments that pose static-charge risk.

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