Debunking Emergency Equipment Myths: What You Should Really Know

AS facility and safety managers have recognized the need for a range of safety solutions across many applications, much has been written about meeting American National Standard Institute (ANSI) requirements and the importance of routine emergency testing. The ANSI standards are mostly black and white, but there are other issues surrounding emergency equipment that are more like fuzzy shades of gray.

Myth #1: Cartridge gravity-fed eyewashes are superior to user-filled (or vice versa)
One of the debates, not exactly an epic battle but a source of disagreement nonetheless, is whether user-filled or cartridge gravity-fed eyewash units are easier to use and more cost effective to maintain. Some say it's user-filled, and others argue cartridge is the way to go. As the name implies, with user-filled eyewash stations, a user fills the tank with potable water and a preservative. In cartridge units, the washing fluid is supplied in a factory-sealed, disposable bag-in-a-box. Which is better? I'm happy to say the not-so-definitive answer is . . . "It depends."

Gravity-fed eyewashes have evolved quite a bit over the years. Where they were once bulky and were required to hold a tremendous amount of solution (more than 17 gallons and nearly 150 pounds) to be considered effective, 15-minute gravity-fed eyewashes have been trimmed down in size and offer a wide variety of advantages, including:
• No plumbing hassles. Eye relief is no longer limited to areas where plumbing is available. Gravity-fed systems now bring relief to a variety of applications, from the factory and the laboratory to the outdoor work site or remote area.
• Place it almost anywhere. Because gravity-fed eyewashes are not tethered to the nearest fresh water source, they can be located anywhere corrosive chemicals or hazardous particulates contaminate the air.
• ANSI compliance. That all-important 15-minute flush at 0.4 gallons per minute (gpm) with tepid water is an industry standard that is required for any gravity-fed eye wash system. Don't accept anything less.

User-filled eyewash units: less cost, more work
Ask yourself . . .
• Will the eyewash be used often?
• Are your employees going to use the solution to inappropriately rinse off safety glasses, their hands, or anything else?
• May the workplace jokester activate the eyewash just for the fun of it?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, a user-filled eyewash may be for you. The design of user-filled, gravity-fed eyewashes allows for brief activation without compromising the system's readiness. Brief activation also does not require that the entire system be refilled. As long as a minimum level of fluid is maintained to guarantee a 15-minute flush, these units will stand up to anything, from weekly testing to a worker wanting a splash of water.

User-filled eye washes generally score high on the cost-effectiveness scale. The eyewash units themselves are generally less expensive than most cartridge units, and the wash fluid is nothing more than potable water and an inexpensive ($2 to $4) bottle of preservative.

Better units are capable of a full flush using only seven gallons of solution, which makes units lighter and easier to handle. Some manufacturers offer gravity-fed eyewashes that can be mounted on a waste cart or to a wall or flat workspace for greater versatility. Overall, newer models have become easier to fill, assemble, and transport. If selecting this type of eyewash station, be sure to look for those that have a clear holding tank or fill-level window so you can easily check fluid levels.

Where the user-filled eyewashes tend to fall short is in the amount of maintenance that is required. Even with clean water and preservative, the fluid in these units generally remains usable for 120 days. After that, the unit's fluid must be changed. This can add to your maintenance staff's already overloaded schedule.

Cartridge eyewashes: convenience at a price
• Are your eyewashes used rarely, if ever?
• Do you have a need for only one eyewash?
• Do you feel there would be few, if any, "accidental" activations?
• Are you willing to pay up to 25 percent more for less maintenance?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you may want to consider a cartridge eyewash system. The main selling point of cartridge systems is the convenience of having little or no maintenance. Because the eyewash solution in a cartridge system is sealed at the factory, the shelf life of the eyewash solution is usually two years. Therefore, if it is never activated, the cartridge-type eyewash stations can go several months without any routine maintenance. Backup cartridges also can be stored for many years, as long as the expiration date has not passed.

Unfortunately, the convenience of long shelf life and low maintenance comes at a cost. First is the expense of the cartridges, which can cost $100 or more. Add to that significant shipping costs for these heavy items, and the expenses quickly add up.

Second, when the cartridge eyewash is activated, there's no shutting it off. When the lever is pulled, the cartridge bag is pierced and all of the fluid empties. Even if the flow is stopped somehow, the solution has been compromised. When this happens, the cartridge needs to be changed at a minimum cost of $100. If someone walking by "mistakenly" activates these stations, costs can climb quickly.

Other attributes to consider
Though the choice between user-filled and cartridge may be the most significant decision you'll have to make in choosing a gravity-fed eyewash, keep in mind there are many other factors to consider, including:

• Waste water collection. Where does the fluid go when the eyewash is activated? If there's not a drain near the eyewash station, you'll need some type of waste collection method. Check to see whether the models you are considering offer waste collection options.
• Vandal resistance. Activating an eyewash station when it's unnecessary isn't the only vandalism that can occur. Experienced eyewash professionals have their own stories of cigarette butts, lunch leftovers, and other debris ending up in eyewash fluid. Check to see what methods the eyewash station utilizes to protect the eyewash fluid from vandals.
• Ability to keep water tepid or freeze-protected. Not all eyewash stations are located in climate-controlled areas. If your eyewash station will be located in an area where temperatures can cause the eyewash solution to fall below the tepid temperature range, choose a station that features a thermostatically controlled heater to keep fluid temperature at an optimal level.

Myth #2: Green is the color of safety
While it's true that traffic signals and directional signs are often green, selecting an emergency drench shower or other emergency fixture with a green-colored coating does not necessarily equate to greater safety. While no specific color is designated for emergency drench showers or eyewashes in either ANSI Z358.1-2004 or the ANSI Z535.1-2002 American National Standard for Safety Color Code, studies show yellow actually may be the best choice.

Yellow is the most visible color and is the first color the human eye notices. Because it's attention-getting, yellow is the usual color for school buses, taxicabs, and road signs. Even the traditional red fire engine is now bright yellow, making it easier to see when there's an emergency. Research has shown that yellow cars are less likely to be hit by other vehicles because drivers are more likely to notice them. It makes sense that choosing a bright color such as yellow can help injured workers quickly find and use an emergency fixture, even if their vision is compromised.

Myth #3: If unopened, bottled eyewashes don't need to be replaced
Personal bottled eyewash solutions help flush hazards from the eye prior to someone's being able to reach an ANSI-compliant eyewash station. The mistake that many facilities make is either not checking for opened bottles or simply not replacing them over time.

While bottled eyewash solutions are sealed from the factory for sterility, these solutions are often preservative free and should be replaced once opened. The shelf life varies by manufacturer; some bottled eyewashes have a three-year shelf life from the date of manufacture.

Even though the eyewash fluid remains sterile for this amount of time, care also should be given to keeping the eyewash bottle itself clean. Because these bottles often are located in dusty or dirty areas, contaminants can build up on the outside of the bottle. When the bottles are used, the debris can easily make its way into the eyes. If your bottled eyewash doesn't offer any type of dust cover, you may need to replace your bottled eyewash even more often.

ANSI recommendations continue to evolve and adherence to all of the regulations is growing, but safety myths still abound. What's the hard and fast rule you can count on? Question conventional wisdom. Be sure to study the ANSI standards or consult a specialist. Ask questions, then draw your own conclusions. The best safety solution for others may not be the right one for you.

This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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