Given that their emergency equipment is seldom needed, many facilities give minimum attention to OSHA

Wireless Safety System Can Cut Costs and Protect Workers

Given that they are seldom needed, many facilities give minimum attention to OSHA’s compliance standards.

Over the decades, safety showers and eye baths have become a common, if seldom used, fixture in the industrial landscape. As a result, very few operators of laboratories or industrial plants seem to pay much attention to them. In fact, the vast majority of safety stations are not alarmed or monitored.

Ignoring safety stations in a plant can be risky. The lack of an alarm creates an unsafe environment for workers who may need immediate help if exposed to hazardous chemicals—and potentially could lead to legal liability for the plant operator and company. Meanwhile, no monitoring makes it difficult to ensure or show that the safety station equipment is kept in good repair, regularly tested, appropriately used, and compliant with federal safety regulations.

In many cases, it's not so much that plant managers are deliberately overlooking safety stations as it is that they simply do not have a cost-effective way to monitor them. After all, many of these facilities are decades old and would be difficult and expensive to retrofit with hard-wired detection systems.

We recently introduced Limitless Wireless Switches to help industrial facilities cost effectively monitor a variety of safety equipment, including safety showers and eyewash stations. This wireless system is easy to install and maintain, can reduce maintenance costs on safety equipment, helps facilities remain in compliance with federal regulations, and enhances the ability to prevent or minimize an injury or crisis.

Few Alarms and Monitors
Required by OSHA, safety showers and eye baths have been around for decades. From industrial facilities to university and high school laboratories, they are everywhere. But given that they are seldom needed, many facilities give minimum attention to OSHA's compliance standards.

For instance, while it is highly recommended that safety showers and eyewash stations be alarmed, it is not required—with the result that nine out of 10 safety stations at most plants do not have an alarm system. Alarm systems typically consist of an audible alarms or blinking lights that alerts plant management when the safety station is in use.

The lack of an alarm creates an unsafe situation for workers, especially those who work in remote areas. Even with advanced engineering controls and safety precautions, accidental chemical exposures can still occur. For workers exposed to a leak or spill of hazardous chemicals who need emergency assistance, a quick response is often needed to avoid long-term injuries. But without alarms, unless someone else at the facility happened to see the accident, help may arrive too late, if at all. Injured workers who are unable to call for help because they are alone or incapacitated by injury are especially vulnerable to the lack of an alarm.

Likewise, few safety stations are electronically monitored. Fewer than two in 10 original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) monitor their safety shower and eyewash stations, according to studies.

Not monitoring safety stations means that many operators don’t know when one of their safety stations is in use or even when it has been used. As a result, these operators will have a difficult time ensuring that the equipment is appropriately used. For instance, a university will not know whether students or others are using a safety shower to wash hands or boots or for some other inappropriate purpose. These are issues that, without monitors, most operators now will have trouble even detecting, much less addressing.

Also, not monitoring safety stations may make it difficult for the operator to determine when was the last time the station was tested, which is a monthly requirement by OSHA. Testing often consists of pulling the shower head and then writing down the date of the test on a piece of paper—there is no central databank for this information. In turn, this means that companies do not know whether and when every shower has been checked unless they manually look at each of the paper tabs. As a result, it is not unusual for safety showers and eyewash stations to fail to meet minimum compliance standards, including not functioning properly.

Wireless vs. Wired
Although electronic systems that alarm and monitor safety stations have been around for years, they have typically have had to be hard-wired. Wired systems, however, are difficult and costly to install. Pulling wire and cable from a remote safety station to a central dispatch area can be difficult and expensive, especially in an older facility, often requiring many hours of an electrician's time.

New more affordable wireless systems do not require any wiring or electrical connectors such as junction boxes and conduits. One set of over-the-counter batteries may power the switches for one year, enabling engineers to spend less time surveying their plant and more time addressing more critical tasks.  As a result, some wireless systems do not require a professional installer, are easy to install for anyone who understands programmable logic controllers (PLC), and cost less than a wired system.

The two systems operate somewhat differently. In most wired systems, the water valves in the safety stations are electrically connected to warning lights or buzzers in central dispatch areas to alert the appropriate authorities when the unit is in use. Essentially, as the water flows through pipe, it activates a switch that sounds an alarm. If the water source is cut off—for instance, the pipes could be frozen—the  alarm will not go off. In contrast, the wireless sensors are installed on the mechanical linkage to shower so that they will sense when that linkage is being pulled. This "actuation signal" is transmitted to a radio receiver that then alerts the appropriate authorities. As a result, regardless of what happens with the water, the wireless system will send the alarm and give the exact location of which safety station has been activated.

The Benefits of Wireless
By sending an alarm when a safety station is used, a wireless system helps protect workers by speeding an emergency response whenever a worker is exposed to hazardous substances. The wireless system also keeps detailed records of when the stations were used, tested, and maintained. The wireless system allows the operator to determine which shower was activated and de-activated at what times. For instance, if an employee or student is exposed to hazardous substances, federal regulators require they use the shower for not less than 15 minutes. By tracking how long the shower was used, the wireless system helps the operator ensure compliance and employee safety.

With wireless sensors, facility operators can verify that all safety showers are checked and they are all time stamped as to when the test took place. The central record of which stations are being used might tip off administrators that a particular safety station is often used, which may be a sign of inappropriate use or abuse. The alarms will also discourage inappropriate use or vandalism of safety stations. By logging that the necessary servicing and shower flushing activities required under federal standards have been performed, the wireless system also helps to document the plant's legal responsibility for health and safety.

Wireless safety systems provide an attractive, cost-effective solution to older brownfield sites where wired systems would be particularly difficult to install. They also make sense for new buildings or as a complementary system in a building that already has a wired system.

In the end, wireless safety systems not only reduce costs, but also they help facilities remain in compliance with federal regulations and protect their workers in case of exposure to hazardous substances.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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