Bring Your Lab to the Scene

Hazmat responders who aren't calling one should strongly consider it.

YOU are sleeping soundly in your own bed, for a change, after spending the better part of two weeks at the site of a chemical warehouse fire, where you assessed exposure--or the lack thereof, as it turned out--of neighboring buildings and the employees who inhabit them. This particular assignment took you 1,500 miles from home (although, with a schedule that keeps you on the road 60-65 percent of the time, you're not exactly sure how to define "home" any more). The last shift wasn't too bad--about 12 hours--and it beat that first-day killer that ran 27 hours. But you like the travel, and the excitement, and helping people and solving problems. That's why you are a hazardous materials emergency responder.

It's 3 a.m. now, though, and it's a good thing you like all of that stuff, because the phone is ringing. A train has overturned two states away, and your client's hazardous materials were on it ("were" being the key word here). All they know is that something is leaking out all over the place, and a noxious odor is rapidly filling the air.

Except for perhaps one key step, the next few minutes are pretty standard: You and your company alert your air transportation personnel, locate the airport nearest the disaster, arrange transportation to and from the scene, secure accommodation in the area, and figure out which equipment, clothing, real-time instrumentation, and sampling media to take.

And then you're off, right?

Well, one hopes not. Because something's missing here--the one "key step" referred to earlier that not only will make life easier and readings clearer now, but also will be your first line of defense later should any of this wind up in a courtroom.

That "something" is the call to the fixed lab. If you understand the benefits of calling a fixed-site lab in these emergencies, you can stop reading right here. If you're not calling one, you should strongly consider it. It is not just a question of convenience or expertise, although a good lab will offer plenty of both, but of liability, too. In fact, I would argue that a highly qualified and properly certified fixed lab should be an integral tool of every hazardous material emergency response company and for every emergency response situation. Because while you might think the fixed lab would be helpless to you in an emergency situation, where a lack of mobility and an 8-to-5 mentality would render it useless, there are a number of ways that certain labs can provide critical assistance.

I should know: I own a lab, and my staff and I have frequent contact, at all hours of the day and night, on weekends and holidays, with emergency responders. They're some of the most interesting people we deal with, and we take great pride in helping them on their mission. I'll explain how.

How a Lab Can Help
Let's go back to that 3 a.m. call. You know it is a chemical spill, but what's in the air? You have real-time instrumentation, but there are some limitations to field instruments. As an example, using a PID/FID field monitor doesn't differentiate between compounds in a volatile mix of chemicals. The concentration readings are based on calibration gases that may not match the field conditions. You use this tool to show what is happening in real time, but you'll want to back it up with hard and fast data that are more specific to the compounds of concern and make your measurements more defensible in court.

So you need media. But do you have the right media to sample with? If you don't, your fixed lab can help. Your lab should be working with you to make sure you have a wide range of media on your own shelves to cover the most common occurrences. It should provide you a service that keeps the media fresh on a rotational schedule so that expiration dates are never an issue. If you have a situation where you don't have what you need or do not have enough of it, the lab should be there at 3 a.m.

Our emergency response clients, for example, call us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, and tell us what they need. We work with them to find the best method to get it to them immediately. Often, we have to get it there to meet them at the scene. They take their samples, ship the media back to us via one-day services, and our people get their lab analysis into our clients' hands fast.

Again, it is not simply a matter of convenience. Validating your field measurements with fixed lab analysis that uses OSHA and NIOSH methods is a matter of covering all your bases so you have evidence that stands up in a court of law.

You're There. Now What?
But maybe you already have several kinds of media. Which is the right kind for the event? Which is the best to use for your lab to analyze the quickest?

Some compounds have several different approved methods, but your lab may not run all of them routinely. It is important to contact the lab to determine the best sampling method to use to get defensible data in the shortest time possible. You'll want to do that at 5 a.m., before you start your sampling pumps--not at 8 or 9 or 10 a.m., when your lab opens for the day. If the compounds are less familiar to you, a lab can help talk you through which kind of media you'll need and how to best capture compounds. If you need to look for a specific compound, a certified lab can do some research to find out whether there's a standard method, what type of instrument it's run on, and whether its method has been validated with detection limits and desorbtion efficiencies, important factors when determining how much air volume to sample.

From my own experience, I know we have done this type of thing a number of times. We've also run into clients who have had nothing more than a charcoal tube on hand. Our lab has developed and validated for many compounds a modification to the OSHA 7 method using a universal solvent (CS2 with a co-solvent) that lets you sample for most organics on one charcoal tube. OSHA has been testing our universal solvent in their labs in Salt Lake City. This method saves you from having to set up multiple pumps and sampling tubes in many instances. A few times, it has made a major difference for our clients. When you are checking into hiring a lab, this is a capability you might want to inquire about.

And if you need real-time field instruments on site and you don't have enough of them, a lab should be able to help with those, too, any time of the day or night, every day of the year. Emergencies, after all, don't observe normal hours or five-day work weeks, and much of the time, neither do you. Similarly, your lab should be there whenever you need it.

We loan instruments free of charge to our clients, but our clients have rented other field instruments from us--from gas monitors to ambient air analyzers--to bring to a site or to meet them there, such as a portable IR that allows them to identify thousands of specific compounds using their infrared spectra. The library search capability can help identify unknowns and byproducts from mixed atmospheres. This unit can be pre- and post-calibrated over a concentration range for a specific compound using our environmental atmosphere chamber. This can be extremely useful in mixed atmospheres where a specific compound is of concern.

More Than You Thought It Was
If you find yourself on a hazmat site that is developing into more than you could predict, the fixed lab has to be able to help you across a wide range of hazards. You will want a lab that can immediately respond to other hazards that may not have been identified initially. You will want a lab that has the ability to identify unknowns using validated methods.

Many of our hazmat emergency responders keep on hand pre-cleaned, evacuated canisters in order to be able to collect an intrinsically safe sample for identification and quantification of unknown volatile compounds using gas chromatography/mass spectroscopy. The mass spectrometer can positively identify unknowns using the unique mass spectrum of a contaminant. Additionally, scans of classes of hazards are often useful to identify acids, metals, semi-volatile compounds, and other hazards. As an emergency responder, you're not going to want to be calling multiple laboratories to get your answers; you want to work with just one, if you can.

So, from analysis to instrumentation to round-the-clock advice, you should be able to get the critical advice and materials you need--at 3 a.m. on Tuesday or in the middle of the afternoon on Sunday--from a fixed lab with certified industrial hygienists. Whether you are 20 minutes or 2,000 miles away, you shouldn't leave home without one.

This article appeared in the December 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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