A fact that was made clear at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was that supplies of disinfectants, PPE and alcohol gel were too low to meet the demands of both front-line workers and the general public. Health-care workers in particular struggled with shortages, and alcohol hand gel was out of stock in stores everywhere.

Unexpectedly, micro-breweries and distilleries stepped in to meet the increased need. These manufacturers quickly altered their processes to make way for the production of thousands upon thousands of bottles of hand sanitiser. Already skilled in the production of alcohol products, it was a natural move for these companies. Many generously donated supplies straight to the front line in healthcare and production is ongoing with demand levels remaining high.

A French perfume manufacturer that lists Dior and Givenchy amongst their fragrances, produced and donated 12 tonnes of hand sanitiser in just over a week for hospitals in France combatting the virus. Spirits giant Pernod Ricard, whose brands include Absolut, Jameson and Beefeater, also donated over 70,000 litres of pure alcohol for hand gel production.

Dealing with the differing hazardous chemicals required to manufacture alcohol hand gel requires additional safety procedures. Isopropyl alcohol and ethanol used to produce these hand sanitisers are not only highly flammable but can also cause moderate skin irritation or serious eye injury and must be washed off immediately if there is a spill.

To help countries ensure safety and produce alcohol-based handrubs, WHO identified formulations for their local preparation. The hydrogen peroxide used in the WHO Handrub Formulations is a chemical that is incompatible with many substances (e.g., organic material, caustics, some acids), is corrosive to the skin, and may cause eye irritation in its diluted form (concentrations of <8%). At higher concentrations (>30%), hydrogen peroxide solutions can react explosively with many substances, and are even more corrosive and irritating to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.

As an employer, it is your responsibility to ensure you know of potential risks in your workplace, including chemical risks.  Where procedures are changing, even temporarily, and new chemicals are being handled it is essential that risk assessments are updated or created, and any required safety measures are put in place.

Where a substance can cause harm or severe irritation to skin or eyes, it’s imperative that a specifically designed safety shower or eye/face wash is provided to effectively wash off the contaminant in the event of an accident or to clean off PPE.