By providing basic "this is what you do and why" instructions, you help employees help themselves. (Michael Rieger/FEMA photo)

Hazmat by Accident

By providing basic "this is what you do and why" instructions, you help employees protect themselves.

In an emergency situation such as a natural disaster or hazardous material exposure, is your program “Safety in Name Only”? (Chances are, many of you are suddenly looking concerned because you had not considered this.) There is a vast difference talking a good game of safety and actually having an outstanding safety awareness program.

"Hazmat" brings to mind fully equipped emergency responders at the scene of a highway or railroad crash, but have you considered everyday employee exposures in unusual situations? Think of slimy, leaking, crumpled containers tossed by a storm, flaming chemical slicks on water after spills, and purple haze drifting from container leaks, as well as bobbing unlabeled barrels carried on the floodwaters after a hurricane, vehicle pileups and unknown spills on our roadways, unsavory people dumping "stuff" in parking areas, mass area evacuations, and more. If you think all chemicals and hazardous materials are properly contained and accounted for, think again!

Many companies ignore advanced planning simply because they believe, "We don't produce or handle anything dangerous." While this may reduce employee exposure on site, horrific events in the past few years have graphically shown that hazardous substances and exposures can happen anywhere unexpectedly. You need to help proactively protect your employees.

Unplanned contact or exposure for any of your employees could happen by chance at any time, affecting their ability to make fast decisions correctly to prevent harm. Natural disasters deposit unseen hazardous materials at our doorsteps in the form of runoff that an employee may track through in sandals. Vehicle accidents may cause encounters with transporters. Unknown bottles may lurk in a basement area that your employees are clearing out, possibly causing someone to open one and sniff the contents. We all have "that was stupid" injuries that no one could have foreseen, but by providing basic "this is what you do and why" instructions, you help them protect themselves.

Planning and Preparation
Even if you do not produce, handle, or transport hazardous materials in your normal work environment, consider going the extra effort to educate and make your employees aware of potential exposures and what to do in emergency situations. Proper immediate medical treatment and follow-up save worker’s comp dollars by the thousands. Identification and notification to correct authorities of potential hazmat exposures remove untrained employees from exposure and help to contain potentially dangerous substances from environmental exposures and employee injury. In the world of hazardous materials, a little goes a long way.

Consider the following items:

  • Analyze this! What's in your area that employees can potentially be exposed to? Consider surrounding companies and large-scale producers in the area. Ask the local fire/emergency trainers for assistance; often they will provide awareness information. Make a list and do a "reality" vulnerability test for what could happen. While a tsunami is not particularly likely in Kansas City, tornadoes are regular destructive visitors. Talk frankly to staffers about what to expect after situations and what their role is in such events. Keep it real; attacks from space aliens will diminish your effectiveness here. You want thoughtful participation, not laughter.
  • Natural and man-made disasters? You can build upon their training by participating in national awareness efforts, such as the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills, tornado and severe weather awareness events, Hurricane Preparedness Week, etc. Add in man-made situations, and you will help your employees understand potential dangers and what they can do to self-protect.
  • Assess potential impacts clearly and develop a plan. Be reasonable and start slowly. Build on different needs as issues arise. Involve your company's safety committee and request participation from all staff. Tie in with local schools and educational systems when they have community events such as lockdown drills or active shooter awareness programs. Be language friendly and culturally diverse in planning efforts, and remember to plan for those with disabilities on site.
  • Which staffers are considered essential, mission-critical employees and are expected to show up for work no matter what? Which ones do you expect to stay at home if a big event happens? This must be clearly explained to employees. Also, what are your expectations for them to render aid to others in an emergency? Be specific, because often you do not want employees attempting to rescue others (such as if your company is adjacent to a community airport and a small plane crashes into your building). Make sure they know to evacuate and let the professionals handle it.
  • Have on hand sufficient PPE and supplies for emergency situations and quick containment, and train them how to use them. In natural disasters, such as tornado or hurricane aftermath, a common exposure is inappropriate shoes and puncture wounds to workers' feet. Not wearing gloves or eye/face protection is a serious problem. Liquid splashes from mixtures may expose an employee who is not adequately dressed for emergency operations. Do you know where these items are kept, and are they available?
  • Your employee notification system--how do you get the word out quickly? Email, text message, overhead page, runners? How do you confirm all employees are accounted for, including those with disability and unique jobs that may prevent them from hearing pages? (Think of equipment operators on forklifts, construction workers, and others outside normal routes.) What's your "plan B" in case the power is out?
  • Educate your entire staff and keep them up to date. Are you conducting drills? There is a wealth of information, training materials, and specialty consultants who are available to assist. Knowing what to consider before a crisis will help in the real situation.
  • Do staffers know how to report an injury/exposure and where to go for treatment? Remember, in a true disaster situation, all local emergency rooms will be overwhelmed within a few hours. Have a backup location/plan for treatment. (Emergency rooms prioritize according to need, not arrival time.) Make sure your employees who may need preventative items such as Hep B, tetanus, etc. are kept up to date and trained accordingly.
  • How up to date is your first aid kit? For traveling employees, is there a portable first aid kit in each vehicle? Whom do they contact for help on the road? Have a package in the glove box for just such a situation; a disposable camera is a great addition, too.
  • Is there a resource list of emergency contacts at your employees' fingertips? Do they know how to report unusual or potentially dangerous situations?
  • Cast a critical eye on all of your emergency operations plans from start to finish. Are contact numbers clearly posted? (They should not be online only, in case of a power failure.) Are exits kept clear? Do you maintain a comprehensive inventory of potentially dangerous substances and appropriate cleanup/containment equipment?
  • Are your contractors/visitors/temporary employees kept up to date on changes or additions that may affect their work and work locations? Make sure you document this.

Safety and Stewardship
This is not a new, unique program or a specific code requirement. Preparing your employees for the unexpected hazard exposure is not only good safety, it is good stewardship. You already have the basics in place with your COOP plan, code requirements (such as fire protection), posting emergency information, etc. With just a little effort and additional training, you can tremendously improve employee assessment and reaction to unexpected exposures, protecting them and reducing injuries and worker's compensation costs.

Our employees are valuable, and safety as a compassionate service helps us as safety professionals make the extra effort to keep awareness fresh and moving forward to keep them interested, as well as safe.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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