Mass Alert Done Right

Hearing U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board member William Wark’s Feb. 28 speech at the ISNetworld users group conference in Dallas confirmed my fear that we aren’t prepared for serious chemical leaks. By “we” I mean the public, but Wark also meant the employees who are shipping these materials and processing them.

He mentioned process safety failings that he said CSB has found are common in many plants: delayed or undone maintenance, incomplete analysis of process hazards, ignored and unenforced procedures, and poor or nonexistent public notification of hazardous processes and stored chemicals. “We’re finding all over the country that there’s not the type of off-site planning with the community, with facilities, that should be done,” said Wark, who said he is working with CSB’s staff to produce a video on emergency planning preparedness that he hopes will be used nationwide to address this problem.

His point about public ignorance of chemical threats in our midst is proven by any number of investigations and emergencies that make the news. Many factors are at work, from the huge number of U.S. shipments in all modes to public apathy. These movements are nearly invisible to us, as are improvements in the process: DHS chief Michael Chertoff told a group of bloggers in March that the rail industry has dramatically shrunk the time railcars loaded with toxic chemicals sit idle. Who knew? (A week earlier, Association of American Railroads President/CEO Edward Hamberger urged the nation’s big chemical companies to stop making dangerous chemicals that can be replaced by safer substitutes or new technologies currently in the marketplace. He cited chlorine gas, noting some water utilities are instead using liquid bleach or ultraviolet light. “If chemical companies would take that step . . . railroads would no longer be required by the federal government to transport some of the most highly toxic chemicals around the country. Millions of Americans who live in cities or towns near chemical plants or railroad tracks would be safer,” Hamberger said.)

Here’s an additional factor: emergency communications that have not kept up with the times. CDW Government Inc.’s online survey of 1,448 people in the 20 largest U.S. metropolitan areas found 36 percent rated their cities’ emergency communications good or very good. Two-thirds (66 percent) said they did not know whether their cities have mass e-mail or text messaging in place. “Traditionally, TV and radio have been the principal means of communicating emergencies out to the public. But communication means have changed, and the mobility of the public is much greater now,” said Joe Mangano, CDW-G’s field sales manager in the eastern United States for state and local governments. “The governments out there are starting to add the different means. Surveys like ours are giving them the public feedback that I think they’re looking for,” he added. “What we’re seeing is that we want to try to drive information to them without having them have to log in or be watching or listening.”

AAR and CDW-G are right. If we listen, we’ll all be much safer.

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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