Commercial Floor Care: Mission Possible: Safe and Effective Strippers

January 1, 2007
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Floor care professionals are increasingly weighing in on the need for floor finish strippers to be safer for their employees and friendlier to the environment. This is a challenge considering what a stripper needs to do and the industry dynamics in which they are marketed.

Strippers destroy the floor’s finish – technically called a polymer film – so it can be fully removed through mechanical agitation. Traditionally, strippers are formulated to act in one of three ways: to swell and bubble the polymer film using a high pH product; to penetrate and break up the film using solvents; or to break the polymer’s chemical bond using amines.

The chemicals that make strippers work can have a variety of ill effects on those exposed to them. Strippers made with butoxyethanol – commonly known as butyl – are a good example. Butyl-containing strippers are cheap, easy to formulate and readily penetrate finish films, but can also be corrosive to both skin and eyes, and may even cause permanent damage, including blindness. When inhaled, butyls can irritate and damage the nose, throat and respiratory tract. When ingested, the chemical can burn the mouth, throat and stomach. Safety goggles and gloves help protect workers against butyls, but unfortunately, there is no guarantee all workers within the floor care industry wear them.

In addition to contact hazards, butyl-containing strippers can also emit a disagreeable odor that can cause a burning sensation to those exposed to the fumes, especially in poorly ventilated areas. While floor care employees may get used to the fumes and burning sensation, building occupants may very well become uncomfortable. Such ancillary effects make stripping in a 24/7 facility (hospitals and hotels, for example) difficult if not impossible.

Strippers that are safe, affordable, low odor and effective on multiple finish types are sought after in the market. Some of the most established and sophisticated manufacturers are successfully introducing such strippers, which can easily take two or more years to develop and require substantial capital. To create a safe and effective stripper, research and development scientists should meet the following product criteria:

The product should not compromise worker safety. Safety should be a primary goal. It is ironic that manufacturers would probably not consider including chemicals such as butyls in at-home products but nonetheless include them in commercial applications, even though the same people – mothers, daughters, sons and husbands – are using them in both settings.

The product should work in a variety of situations. A quality stripper should work equally well in hot and cold weather as well as in humid and dry conditions.

The product should remove a variety of finishes. Versatile strippers require a “multiple mechanism” approach that combines the benefits of high pH, solvent and amine strippers – without the caustic chemical makeup.

The product should not contain any environmentally damaging surfactants such as nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). While surfactants such as NPEs are effective and cheap to manufacture, the environmental risks of using such an ingredient can be substantial.

The product should not contain butyls. Butyls are a health risk for the user.

The product should be economical. The stripper should be affordable, but it should also work correctly at the recommended application amount. A low-cost product is not economical if it needs to be applied at five times the rate of competing products.

The product should minimize unpleasant odor. Stripping is often relatively disruptive and an inconvenience to building occupants; removing the offensive odor can make stripping a more bearable experience.

Advice for the Floor Care Professional

Not all “safe, affordable, low odor and effective” strippers are created equal. When choosing among the new breed of strippers, floor care professionals should start with the manufacturer itself. Floor care professionals should choose established companies who are more likely to have the expertise and resources needed to develop safe and effective strippers.

Label and material safety data sheets (MSDS) are important tools for finding the right stripper. Truth in labeling is a federal mandate, and companies should provide MSDS forms with every purchase. These tools will divulge whether the stripper contains butyls. Labels and MSDS forms will also list “non-reversible side effects” such as blindness or permanent lung damage, which can be characteristics of products that are not user friendly. In general, purchasers should read the MSDS to ensure they are comfortable with the chemicals and how they are used in the product.

A product’s effectiveness is nearly impossible to determine without actually using it. Because worker safety and building occupant comfort are at stake, the potential outcome often makes experimentation worth the time. It is often better to experiment on an aisle, though, than to try out a new product on a 60,000-square-foot space.

Finally, safety goggles and gloves are recommended by most, if not all, stripper manufacturers. Floor care professionals should make protective gear mandatory and strictly enforce the policy.

Strippers tackle one of the more difficult aspects of floor care. In the absence of technical advances and market pressures, manufacturers have sometimes used strippers that are effective at removing finish but potentially harmful to workers and uncomfortable to building occupants. That dynamic is changing, and floor care professionals can now explore new options.

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