Emergency Response is a Matter of Time

The best time to prepare a facility's immediate and effective response to hazardous chemical exposure is before it ever happens.

In an emergency, the faster the response, the better the outcome.

An emergency safety plan that anticipates every work site emergency and improves emergency response time is every facility manager's and employee's best protection. It's difficult to think clearly and logically in a crisis, so having a well-orchestrated strategy in place that can be properly and quickly executed by employees makes all the difference.

When an employee at a work site is exposed to hazardous chemicals, taking these pre-emptive actions will help ensure the most positive outcome:

1) Providing a well-organized work site equipped with easily accessible eyewashes or drench showers

2) Minimizing the length of response time for accessing emergency equipment and drenching the employee’s affected area(s)

3) Employing emergency signaling systems to ensure immediate help is on the way, including emergency medical care

Time is clearly of the essence in stopping the exposure, alleviating discomfort and pain, and preventing further or permanent facial and bodily damage. For example, an eyewash or drench shower must be located within 10 seconds of the hazard, so the injured person can quickly and easily reach the plumbed fixture to immediately drench affected areas. Time is also a factor in the length of time one stays in the flushing fluid, which should be for a full 15 minutes as required by the ANSI/ISEA Z358.1 standard. Reaction time of emergency response personnel to swiftly gain access to the injured party is also critical in halting further injury and getting the exposed user proper medical attention.

For proper and expedient execution of a safety plan, it's important to carefully review with employees the basics on placing and using emergency safety equipment and what to do following a co-worker's accident. Consider these elements of emergency planning and response preparedness:

Why Use Emergency Fixtures?
Emergency safety showers and eyewashes prevent permanent eye and skin damage from chemical burns or foreign substances generated by grinding, hammering, chipping, testing, pouring, storing, transporting, and disposing operations. Proper selection, placement, and maintenance of this equipment will minimize risk of exposure while reducing the chances of catastrophic employee health impacts, work productivity, or even legal costs for the facility.

Eyewash and drench shower fixtures are placed throughout hazardous environments wherever there is risk of exposure to eye or bodily contaminants. Environments also may include inclement conditions such as heat, freezing, and airborne chemicals. Plumbed, portable, and self contained/stand-alone units should be matched to work site needs.

Where Are Proper Locations for Placement?
Each unit should be stationed close to a hazard, easily seen, and in immediate good working order. It is highly recommended to conduct a walk-through of the facility with a health or safety expert to determine proper locations and types of fixtures for each location.

Here are some fundamental placement guidelines:

  • Emergency shower fixtures must be within 55 feet of a potential hazard and must take no more than 10 seconds to access. In addition, the path to the fixture must not be obstructed by debris or other hazards that could interfere with the fixture's use.
  • The area around the fixture should be well lit to optimize visibility, and each fixture should be identified with a highly visible sign.
  • If a potential chemical spill in an area is likely to affect multiple workers, a sufficient number of fixtures should be made available.
  • If the worker’s ability to walk or move could be impacted by the chemical exposure, the fixture should be placed closer to the worker.
  • The equipment must be on the same level on which the user is working.

When Is an Eyewash Needed vs. a Drench Shower?
After potential hazards throughout a work site are identified, consider how the types of fixtures can best address the risk:

  • Emergency eyewash stations
    • effective for spills, splashes, dust, or debris likely to affect only the eyes
    • provides a controlled flow of water to both eyes simultaneously
    • delivers an uninterrupted, 15-minute supply of tepid water; plumbed units can supply a greater volume of water available to the user—between 7.5 and 19.0 liters (2.0 and 5.0 gallons) per minute
  • Emergency eye/face wash stations
    • used when the entire face is at risk from spills, splashes, dust, and debris
    • irrigates the eyes and face simultaneously
    • provides a large distribution pattern of water (minimum 11.4 lpm/3.0 gpm) to effectively rinse the entire face
  • Drench showers
    • used when larger areas of the body are at risk
    • flushes a larger portion of the body but is not appropriate for the eyes (a combination eyewash and drench shower may be used to simultaneously flush the eyes and rinse larger areas of the body)

How Do Emergency Fixtures Actually Work?
Drench showers work by simply pulling down on the drench shower handle while standing directly underneath the shower head. New technology will effectively drench the entire body without needing to move around in the spray pattern. Eye and eye/face washes work by pushing a handle or lifting a bowl cover. The face is then positioned directly in the flushing fluid, while the user holds their eyelids open with their fingers. The user should roll his or her eyes around while positioned directly in the eyewash streams to effectively rinse the entire eye. Ensuring employees are trained on the proper and expeditious use of equipment is essential to worker safety.

For both eyewashes and drench showers, it's essential to have direct and on-demand access to tepid water—per ANSI requirements—to encourage a full and effective flush of the affected area. ANSI Z358.1-2014 stipulates that an injured worker remains beneath the drench shower and/or flush his eyes/face for a minimum of 15 minutes to increase the likelihood of a complete and successful treatment and minimize the possibility of inadvertently spreading hazardous material to other areas.

What Is the Response Protocol After Someone Uses an Emergency Fixture?
Each employee should be trained on what action to take in assisting the affected employee(s) and how to report emergencies to emergency medical personnel. To help with the notification process, it is essential to have the ability to immediately send a clearly recognizable signal of an emergency that notifies others to help and/or send help. Using new signaling technology that works in tandem with each emergency fixture will quickly notify on-site workers and medical personnel and expedite the emergency response and recovery process.

Using a signaling system along with emergency fixtures is important because of common hindrances in the work site to alerting others. For example, industrial work environments don’t always allow for several people to be in the immediate area of a work site hazard. One person could be working outside alone or only a few people could be working within an expansive area or during third shift. These situations can affect co-workers’ capacities to be aware that an emergency is even happening and, therefore, impede their abilities to help the injured get follow-up medical care.

Another obstacle in providing immediate emergency response and post-medical care is the time it takes for emergency responders to be dispatched to a work site. According to NEDARC (the National EMSC Data Analysis Resource Center), the average emergency medical services response time in the United States is 9.4 minutes. The sooner EMS teams are alerted, the sooner they can attend to a work site emergency.

While all employees should be trained on what to do if a co-worker has been exposed to hazardous chemicals, they should not be relied upon to completely abate the emergency. It’s best to ensure proper medical response is provided in such a dynamic and emergent situation, and an emergency signaling system is a clear method to communicate when and where medical assistance is needed.

How Do Emergency Signaling Systems Work?
Signaling devices are connected to emergency showers and eyewashes. Upon activation of the fixtures, the signaling devices are automatically triggered to turn on a highly visible flashing light and a loud sound designed to cut through ambient noise. The signaling systems call others to help, draw attention to the precise location of need, alert management to contact first responders, and provide remote monitoring of safety equipment.

Installing an emergency signaling system is a much faster and efficient way to alert those in the immediate area, as well as managers or safety personnel in other locations, that an employee is in need of help. It’s important to make sure various alarms in the facility are highly distinctive and recognized by all employees as a signal to response actions identified in your plan.

The first seconds following eye and skin exposure are absolutely critical to minimizing worker injury, which is always the main goal of any worker safety program. Instituting a well-devised safety plan, having access to proper emergency equipment, and providing a reliable emergency signaling system can expedite response and improve the outcome of the emergency.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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