Is Your Safety Shower a Dangerous Trap?
It is management's responsibility to know and comply with current treatment preparation requirements and to acquire emergency response equipment that will provide such treatment.
Does an operation that you are responsible for require the availability of safety showers for your workers? If you have provided safety showers, do they meet current required and commonly accepted standards for safety shower and eyewash equipment? If you have provided safety showers and directed your workers to use the showers if needed, but your equipment does not provide the treatment currently required by governmental regulatory bodies, recommended by treatment experts, and incorporated into up-to-date industry-standard equipment, you may be setting a dangerous trap for your workers and a costly liability trap for your company.
Merriam-Webster defines the word danger as "exposure or liability to injury, pain, harm, or loss."1 Do you have antiquated equipment that has an appearance of compliance but actually delivers substandard treatment? Just as not providing required, compliant emergency treatment equipment is unwise, presenting inadequate equipment as compliant and effective is foolishly short-sighted. In the event of a serious chemical accident, workers are likely to seek out the emergency treatment equipment they have been instructed to use. If such equipment is substandard, the workers may find themselves without proper treatment and thereby be subjected to unnecessary "injury, pain, harm, or loss." The company responsible for workplace safety compliance may find itself in a similar situation, but rather than physical "injury, pain, harm, or loss," its may be legal and financial. It is a well-established principle of employment law that the employer-employee relationship includes a duty on the part of the employer to use ordinary care in providing a safe workplace.2 It has been established that this duty is part of the employer-employee relationship.3 Of course, the standard of ordinary care changes as the years fly by. Decades ago, a working garden hose may have been considered sufficient preparation for a chemical accident and then, for years, a basic cold-water pipe shower/eyewash was considered adequate preparation. But in today’s world of sophisticated solutions, based on hard-won experience, such simple, ineffective preparation won’t do. We can and are required to do better for our workers. Naturally, workers rely on management to make the proper provisions for emergency treatment. It is management's responsibility to know and comply with current treatment preparation requirements and to acquire emergency response equipment that will provide such treatment. Safety showers and eyewashes are an important element of treatment preparation. Wise executives and managers ensure that, for the sake of their workers and their companies' financial health and reputation, all potential exposure is properly prepared for, with compliant equipment.
Let's suppose someone is working in a warehouse and in the course of his normal duties grabs his left arm, expresses intense pain, and falls to the floor unconscious. A supervisor and the team start CPR procedures while waiting for the ambulance. Once it arrives, the EMTs immediately start to try to stabilize the victim, with some success, but it’s clear that the victim needs intensive medical care. The victim is quickly loaded into the ambulance and the driver of the ambulance goes "code three"–lights and siren–in the direction of the hospital to try to save the victim. Unfortunately, the transmission of the ambulance gets stuck in first gear. No amount of effort to manipulate the transmission succeeds in getting the ambulance to go faster than first gear will allow.
In our hypothetical situation, let’s suppose that the victim did suffer a heart attack and died en route to the hospital. The delay in getting the victim to proper treatment is identified by medical experts as having contributed to his death. Was it reasonable for the ambulance company to provide a properly working ambulance? Can the ambulance company say, with credibility, that it provided the required emergency treatment and response equipment if their equipment wasn’t working properly? Was anyone in the ambulance company aware the ambulance had issues? For the sake of our point, let’s suppose the ambulance company’s management knew this specific vehicle or their fleet in general had fitness-for-duty issues. What kind of liability would the company face if the victim’s loved ones pursued legal action?
Now, let’s look at a not-so-unlikely hypothetical situation. A company uses sodium hydroxide at a somewhat remote location. During a delivery of sodium hydroxide in January, the delivery driver decides to be lax on PPE compliance. During the download, the hose connection from the delivery truck to the storage tank fails and a significant amount of sodium hydroxide is sprayed onto the worker, who screams in pain as the sodium hydroxide starts eating eye tissue and through clothing to outer layers of skin. It quickly burns through first layers and into third degree burn territory. Fortunately, a team member is not far away and comes to help, knowing there is a heat-traced safety shower nearby, and he helps the victim to the shower. Even though the ambient temperature is only 5 degrees F, the activation handle is pushed and the shower starts. Unfortunately, while the shower is not frozen up, this safety shower does not provide “tepid” water. Also, over the years the flow has become restricted by corrosion inside the pipe. The treatment the victim receives is a low flow of 42 degree water. As the co-worker tries to keep the victim in the drench, the co-worker is also being contaminated with sodium hydroxide. A struggle ensues in which the co-worker tries to hold the victim under the cold water, while the victim struggles between the pain of the burns and the extreme discomfort of the very cold water. Neither the victim, nor the co-worker, can stand the cold water very long and end up going in and out of a slow-flow drench.
The end result is that the primary victim suffers severe, disfiguring burns, and the helpful co-worker suffers disfiguring burns to his hands. Was it reasonable and required for the company to furnish a properly working safety shower with “tepid” water that would produce the proper and required emergency treatment? Was management at the company or the delivery company aware the safety shower water flow and water temperature did not meet the ANSI Z358.1 20094 standard for safety showers and eyewashes? Bear in mind that, in addition to civil damages, criminal sanctions can be imposed for gross negligence, under certain circumstances.5
While the ambulance scenario is unlikely, substandard safety showers are, unfortunately, all too common at many actual sites with chemical exposure risk.
It is well known that OSHA bears the primary responsibility of regulating and enforcing workplace safety. In the case of safety showers and eyewashes, this OSHA power has taken form in 29 CFR 1910.151(c): “Where the eyes or body of any person may be exposed to injurious corrosive materials, suitable facilities for quick drenching or flushing of the eyes and body shall be provided within the work area for immediate emergency use.” The best way to determine whether a substance qualifies as an “injurious corrosive material” is to access the Safety Data Sheet, while the best place to find the most commonly accepted interpretation and amplification of the above OSHA statute is in the 2009 revision of the ANSI standard for safety showers and eyewashes, ANSI Z358.1-2009. Not only is it required that organizations provide required and compliant safety equipment for their workers, but, "a failure of equipment to perform as required…is in itself an actionable wrong."
Does your company have safety showers that are inadequate or non-compliant? If so, you might want to revisit your plan for safety shower compliance and take a close look at your potential liability. The wise company seeks out and provides the required emergency treatment equipment, keeps it operating in top condition, and reviews its installed equipment to make sure modern standards have not left the company in a precarious situation.
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.