Which Respirators Best Fit Your Emergency Escape Plans?

Getting employees prepared is one thing. Getting them out is another.

DETERMINING which respirators best fit your emergency escape plans may be one of the most critical steps you can take to ensure employees have the best chance for escape from a terrorist situation, natural disaster, or industrial accident. That determination must be made, of course, within the broader context of a complete emergency preparedness plan.

Plan for the worst. Many companies and communities have done just that since 9/11. All would do well to review at least the requirements for written emergency action plans, under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's standard 1910.38, for organizations with 10 or more employees. A new page on emergency preparedness and response on the OSHA Web site (www.osha.gov) is a good starting point in planning for terrorist incidents, natural disasters, and traditional emergency situations, as are several of the guides on the Emergency Preparedness for Business page of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (www.cdc.gov/niosh). OSHA's e-tools include an "Evacuation Planning Matrix," and a bulletin on "CBRN Escape Respirators" reviews the respirator basics for employee escape from chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear warfare hazards.

Many recent articles also can help with preparation of emergency response plans. A recent series on "Building Corporate Castles" (Occupational Health & Safety, March, June, and September 2003) provides insight on the types of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that terrorists might use and steps one can take to harden a building against such attack. Others, such as "Responding to Dirty Bombs" (Occupational Health & Safety, September 2003) and "Getting Them Out Alive" (Occupational Health & Safety, July 2003) also provide resource references and information on steps that should be taken in response to an attack or accident.

In addition, there are crisis management and risk consultants who can help. Some, such as Marsh Inc. at www.marsh.com, also provide information and courses on their Web sites.

Considering the changing scenarios as well as the planning advantages that also apply to potential natural disasters and industrial accidents, it makes sense for all organizations to update their plans for today's world, train their employees, and practice more than fire drills.

Strategic Analysis
The first step is to assess whether your facility could become a terrorist target or is a potential site for a natural disaster or industrial accident. Initially, some organizations assumed they would not become terrorist targets because they were not located in high-visibility buildings in large population centers. Neither were they part of or close to critical infrastructure, such as communications, border and transportation facilities, water treatment facilities, or power plants.

However, because such facilities and large cities have stepped up security and implemented emergency plans, it now is thought that smaller cities and so-called "soft" facilities might become more likely targets. These include facilities accessible to the general public--office buildings, hospitals, hotels, banks, malls, and schools.

In addition, industrial facilities--particularly those that harbor chemicals or other substances that could become weapons, if released--remain prime targets. Those located near such sites need to assess their vulnerability to secondary impacts. Often, companies have not thoroughly researched the types of hazards in neighboring facilities and range of impact if the hazardous materials are released. Facilities to consider include refineries and tank farms, chemical and plastics plants, nuclear power plants, water chlorination facilities, manufacturing plants using various solvents and other chemicals in their processes, or research laboratories.

Another consideration is the type of weapons that terrorists might use. Some experts now think a dirty bomb, or radiological dispersal device (see "Responding to Dirty Bombs," Occupational Health & Safety, September 2003), would be a more logical choice as a WMD than biological or chemical agents that might be more difficult to disperse or more easily detected. Nevertheless, there is potential for the consequence of any WMD to spread over a wide area.

Along with potential terrorist threats, it also is important to analyze the potential for natural disasters and industrial accidents in your area. These may pose an even greater threat of loss of life or injury than a terrorist event. The fire drill of 50 years ago may no longer be sufficient preparation for today's world.

The Written Plan
One of the first issues to be addressed is who has overall responsibility for the emergency response plan. Is it a safety professional, someone in the human resources department, a security professional, or an outside consultant?

The written program should include identification and evaluation of all hazards, as well as methods to control them. As with other occupational health and safety programs, disaster preparation controls should focus on engineering away as much of the hazard as possible by focusing on security, as well as equipment and procedural safety issues. Personal protective equipment, escape and evacuation plans, and first aid procedures address what can be done to ameliorate the immediate consequences of an incident that does take place.

The written plan also should cover details on specific responsibilities and assignments; communication procedures for contacting others who can provide assistance (fire department, police, EMTs, in-house support personnel), as well as for quickly notifying all employees with instructions; and training and drills. The plan should include provisions for moving to safe areas within the facility, evacuation, accompanying injured employees to hospitals, shutting down critical equipment, and communication with the media. Provisions also should be made for continuous backup of critical business information and for the quickest post-crisis recovery possible.

Respirator Choices
With 9/11 came an increased focus on the requirement for more effective respiratory protection for first responders and remediation workers, as well as a need for better escape methods for employees. The branch chief of NIOSH's National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory as recently as last fall stated, "It is imperative that the general working population be afforded effective respiratory protection in escaping from terrorist events involving possible chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) agents."

Respiratory equipment for protection within environments containing terrorist-related chemical or biological threats can be classified along with other PPE according to the degree of protection offered. Respiratory equipment for first responders--those going toward the epicenter of an incident--requires the highest levels of protection. SCBAs tested to the new CBRN standards are the current solution. Several SCBAs tested to these standards were approved in 2003. If the threat is known or can be estimated, CBRN gas masks may be used. Unfortunately, the NIOSH standard for these respirators is quite new. Several air-purifying respirators were being tested at year-end 2003 and are expected to become available this year.

Escape Masks Only for Escape
For general-population workers escaping from terrorist attacks, a different type of CBRN respirator is needed: one that can be donned and functioning within seconds, and one that requires little training to use. There are two general types: a hooded mask with air-purifying cartridges and a hood with tight-fitting neckpiece and contained source of air. Both must be used only for escape purposes.

Among the advantages of the new escape respirators with air-purifying cartridges (see the accompanying photo) are their light weight and comfort. Some models enable the user to speak normally through a front-mounted exhalation valve, rather than alternating between speaking in short phrases and breathing in air through a snorkel-like mouth bit.

Some of these new respirators were designed and tested last year by their manufacturers to meet the new NIOSH CBRN escape-hood standard. NIOSH began accepting applications to test and evaluate air-purifying escape respirators last fall and should issue the first approvals this year. These escape respirators offer a minimum of 15 minutes of protection from nuclear or radiological dust, chemical and toxic industrial materials, as well as biological agents. They are tested against 10 chemicals and a particulate that represents a wider variety of 139 chemical gases and vapors, biological particulates, and radiological and nuclear dust particles. They may or may not be designed for escape from fire, but those that are also must remove carbon monoxide from the air.

At the time of this writing, NIOSH was to begin accepting applications this month for testing self-contained escape-hood respirators to this standard, as well.

The new escape respirators should not be confused with escape respirators generally tested against only a few chemicals at relatively low concentrations. Many of these more narrowly targeted respirators were advertised on post-9/11 Web sites as "approved" without specifying to what standards they were tested. The misleading claims of some point out the importance of dealing with reputable companies.

Prior to the development of the new escape-hood respirators, other escape respirators ran the gamut from simple mouthpiece respirators (see photo) to neck-sealed hoods with highly portable 5- or 10-minute air supplies (see photo). These continue to be satisfactory respirators for their intended purpose--industrial accidents involving known chemicals.

The mouthpiece respirator is a basic, snorkel-like device with a single cartridge attached so the user can breathe filtered air through the mouth. A nose clip prevents breathing in contaminants through the nose. It is designed for a quick 5- or 10-minute escape from a place where there may be an accidental release of a specific substance, such as chlorine or ammonia.

Designed for personal escape use from several industrial chemicals, the transparent, neck-sealed hood with an air-supply cylinder in a convenient carrying bag typically provides a steady flow of air for 5 or 10 minutes. It requires minimal training and takes only seconds to don. It also can be carried into contaminated areas by first responders wearing certified SCBAs and used to help rescue a trapped victim if the escape can be accomplished within the rated air-supply time of the escape-hood cylinder.

Choice of an escape respirator depends on a company's own evaluation of evacuation requirements. However, it is important to make sure all workers are prepared and provided quick access to the appropriate protection in the event of an emergency. Proper preparation prevents panic. Procrastination can lead to tragedy.

This article originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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