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Barrister Bits - Harmful Cleaning Chemicals

Barrister Bits - Harmful Cleaning Chemicals

by Debra A. Newby, Attorney at Law

by Debra A. Newby

DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me. Your name will remain confidential. Although every inquiry may not be published, we will publish as many as possible. Finally, this Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship. 

Dear Debra:  My sister works as a hotel maid. Sometimes when she comes home from work she has headaches and difficulty breathing.  I think the cleaning chemicals at her work are slowly poisoning her.  Does she have any right to know what is in the products she is using?               —Signed: Suspicious Sister 

Dear SS:

Not surprisingly, environmental toxins surround us all, from the “out gases” of the new tires that lurk in the lobby area of an oil change service, to the chemicals that may permeate nail salons, like toluene and formaldehyde. What you describe may be termed “occupational exposure” or workers’ safety rights, which is a complicated area of law. I’ll try to give you a general overview. 

California employers are legally required to provide a safe and healthy workplace for employees. These laws are predominately found in the California Labor Code and the California Occupational Safety and Health Act.  

In 1991, California went a step further to enforce worker safety rights and passed Title 8 of the California Code of Regulations, Section 5194…commonly called Proposition 65. Prop 65 requires our governor to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. Look for these warnings…they are in common places, like restaurants and public restrooms.  

Prop 65 does not apply to companies employing fewer than 10 employees, any government agency, or public water systems. If you are not sure whether any of the products the maids use are subject to Prop 65, then call (916) 445-6900 for an updated list of chemicals that are subject to Prop 65.  If that chemical is in the product, it is subject to Prop 65.  

In addition, most California employers who may expose their employees to hazardous substances are required to adopt a “hazard communication program”. It is possible that your sister, working as a hotel maid, may be exposed to some hazardous substances, such as certain cleaning products…perhaps even pesticides if a “bed bug spray” is used. She should look at the product(s) she is using, and write down the manufacturer, ingredients, etc.  Knowledge is power. With that knowledge, she should ask her manager for the MSDS (“Material Safety Data Sheet”) on the product, if she is not fearful of retaliation (which is illegal).   

An MSDS must be prepared on each hazardous chemical, and addresses the special chemical and physical characteristics, precautions for safe handling, use and storage of the product, etc. If her employer does not have the MSDS for the products she is using or unwilling to provide such, then she can always write to the manufacturer herself. Although, it is the employer’s responsibility to determine if any of the products used at their workplace may contain hazardous substances. 

A valuable resource for your sister (and her employer) is Cal/OSHA, which is the enforcement arm for worker safety rights. If your sister is running into a wall and not getting the answers she needs to understand the nature of the products she is continually exposed to, then she may wish to call the Cal/OSHA Consultation Service at 1-800-963-9424. Cal/OSHA also publishes an easy-to-read Guide to the California Hazard Communication Regulation, found at

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also produces a “pocket guide” to chemical hazards, found at Personally, I found the pocket guide difficult to understand, as I am not a scientist or chemist. Others may find it helpful.  The key here, again, is to understand the actual breakdown of the ingredients of the products your sister is using at her workplace. 

As Lao Tzu penned, “Health is the greatest possession and confidence is the greatest friend”. May your sister continue to manage her own health and pursue a vibrant path.

Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 32 years.  She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations.  She  maintains an active law office which emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records).  Debra can be reached via email (, phone (707-526-7200), or fax (526-7202).