Eyewash/Safety Shower Protection—Trust But Verify!
Include it in all of your safety topics . . . first aid, chemicals, materials handling. Do whatever is needed to ensure a working, well-documented, accurate program.
During weekly inspections, one drench hose was always noticed with the dust covers dangling and the hose in an awkward position. Upon closer observation and following conversations with staff, it was learned that this hose was often used to fill mop buckets by placing a tie band around the activation handle and dangling into the bucket. Ingenuity at its worst. . . . and, worse, your eyewash program has now been compromised!
These first-line emergency equipment items are truly the silent sentinels of exposure and are not given the value they deserve. Eyewash and emergency safety showers may seem like a straightforward safety program, but it is far from being a "one and done." As you manage your program progressively for years to come, consider the following items.
You and your managers know the hazardous locations of the company, where the greatest potential for exposure injuries is present or even have occurred, and thus where the most serious need for eyewash/safety shower equipment exists. Plot it out and think about location(s) carefully.
Emergency eyewashes should be placed in all hazardous areas as part of your first aid and vision protection efforts. Educate all employees on the specifics of the eyewash/safety shower equipment, locations within the facility, why it is there, how to use it, and that it is okay to use it. Often employees are afraid to touch the eyewash station or to report any injury related to it. Cover this in all needed languages, all shifts, and include contractors, temps, and interns.
Chances are the installation was original to the building unless there was a process change or new hazard. Make sure everything is correct, for example that the water temperature is at safe levels. Ensure that installation is kept clutter free and out of other hazardous paths, such as equipment, level changes, etc. Pick the correct type of eyewash/shower for the work area and hazard. Budget is only one consideration here, so think it through. You may tape or paint lines on the floor. Do whatever is needed to ensure a clear pathway to the eyewash/shower unit. No stacks of junk, excess storage, or trash bins should interfere.
Have the sign in place. As for alarms, I remember one basement eyewash/shower that was activated (I really believe by a disgruntled employee on a Friday afternoon) and it ran unobserved for two days! The water did finally manage to find a drain but caused a huge mess, resulting in wasted time to clean up and a couple of pallets of damaged product. An activation alarm can be very helpful in out-of-the-way departments especially. It alerts staff that something is wrong, either an injured employee or a mechanical issue, and is very worthwhile.
The decisions they make can cause serious implications for your safety eyewash/shower program. Often employees use drench hoses inappropriately as regular hoses for filling buckets or washing down sink areas or equipment. Filth and bacteria can directly impact an employee utilizing such equipment in an emergency. I remember one drench hose being used to assist in cleaning fish! Other clever employees who inspect the equipment do so only on paper, giving a false sense of security that all equipment works when in truth it may not activate when needed. Hopefully, that pathetic employee will move on so that your program to protect employees will actually work in spite of their laziness. Meanwhile, you have to verify everything done "just in case," times two.
Train, train, document, repeat! This needs to be a hands-on training with the opportunity to ask questions. Explain why the eyewash is there to help protect them and how to activate, and just as important, how to shut off. Include first aid, calling for help, calling in problems immediately for correction. Add this as part of your drill activation each year.
Maintenance must be on board with the eyewash/shower program and attend to maintenance requests quickly. If an employee seeing a leaking safety shower simply turns the water off, a greater hazard has been created.
Utility issues with water? Retest when service is restored. Portable units on which the expiration tag is hard to read? Place an easy-to-read sticker on it. Non-plumbed to drain the unit? Explain why this is to employees who think automatically it is the low-bid builder. Chances are it is environmental and not dumping something toxic into the drain.
Cleanup? This is a big deal. How to clean up hundreds of gallons of water rolling down the walkway? Teach employees how to use the equipment properly, shut it off, and what to use to mop up contaminated water quickly. If you have questions, vendors have specific remedies, including portable catchment basins for emergency situations.
Weekly Activation and Annual Flushing
I hear of few who enjoy the weekly activation. Whether done by the area employees or maintenance or the safety staff, the required activation is the only way to verify the equipment is in working order and ready to use in an emergency. Problems can be detected, reported, and resolved quickly. Activation matters. It's not slap and go, but full, real activation to make sure it will work as designed. If I worked in an area requiring an eyewash, I would test it daily!
Do you have your policy and related policies in order? Are appropriate tags and inspection logs available for audits? Did your employees sign that they received and understood the training offered? Do they know how to call in a problem if noticed? And do you have all annual flushing test results and procedures? Can you pull everything on demand?
Are processes in place to take care of the injured employee immediately, transport the individual to the hospital, and back up his or her lost work time by way of a trained replacement? Can you explain to upper management why everything you thought was in place failed? Have first aid that works within reach. Design your first aid kits with a need for large-scale injury/burns/chemical exposure. You already have to check the eyewash weekly, so it is ideal to have first aid close by and to keep a watch on it, as well.
You want high visibility for this program. Are those emergency call numbers posted? Are they current? Does the phone work? (Yes, it does bear repeating that safety means redundancy. Emergency preparedness means planning for the worst.)
More Than Just a Code
The eyewash and safety shower program is one of the most under-utilized, overlooked, and abused through misuse and mismanagement that we must maintain. This should never be an add-on or afterthought program, but instead be front and center and regularly upgraded, as needed. Diligent care and continuous maintenance and follow-up are required for the life of the program elements.
Admittedly, most safety professionals see this program as a necessary evil that will never be used and give courtesy time to the program development and training elements. A really good inspector will not ask the safety person about the eyewash program—the inspector will quiz the line employee working closest to it. If the employee does not know the answers, a great deal of your credibility goes out the window. If your paperwork shows diligent activation and flushing but the unit does not work, is sluggish, or is dirty, expect fines. You deserve them.
Most industries, from heavy industry to medical technology, have need of an eyewash/safety shower program. Consider your production and your hazard assessment.
Face it and deal with reality: This is a lackluster, tough program that is difficult to keep interested in. It is a "what if something bad happens." Talk about it each and every time first aid is mentioned, or housekeeping, chemical safety, maintenance work orders, water supplies, new employee orientation—you name it. Make sure employees are not afraid to use the equipment and know how to clean up if needed before they have gallons of water on the floor and all the tile starts coming up. It is worth every consideration, the nagging of supervisors, employees, maintenance—and, in my case, even hauling the bucket myself to test them on night shift so that employees know they are checked—to prevent injuries at the workplace, which is part of the compassionate service of professional safety. Your eyewash and safety shower program may not be exciting, but if ever needed, the proper use can be lifesaving.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.