We Cannot Let Complacency or Progress Outpace Safety

We Cannot Let Complacency or Progress Outpace Safety

Ensuring that professionals and practitioners are skilled on safety basics and emerging threats can be an uphill battle.

Several years ago, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) went through a rebranding effort to emphasize the global reach of the organization and to underscore the role that we all play in protecting people and property from harm. We landed on the tagline, “It’s a big world. Let’s protect it together.” just as a series of major building, electrical, fire and life safety tragedies were unfolding around the globe.

Given the call to action in our new slogan and the concerning uptick we were seeing in alarming incidents domestically and abroad we began to develop a framework that would help others to connect the dots on safety. The result was the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™.

The Ecosystem emphasizes that safety is a system—not a singular action, piece of equipment or event—and it features eight interdependent components that play a critical role in reducing risk. When the Ecosystem cogs work together, people and property are protected; but if something is missing or broken, the Ecosystem can collapse, often resulting in tragedy.

While each of the Ecosystem components are important, there are two that are particularly noteworthy because they call for a skilled workforce and effective preparedness and emergency response. Poorly trained workers can be a danger to themselves and create dangers for others. Shoddy work can also affect business outcomes and the bottom line, so the Ecosystem reminds us that, regardless of our positions and responsibilities, we all need to be lifelong learners and to hold others accountable for skilling up on a regular basis.

We highlight instances where workers have succeeded or failed at competencies in the Ecosystem in Review, a report that reflects on incidents, both big and small. The 2020 edition of the Ecosystem in Review references an incident in India that prompted a cloud of styrene gas to escape a plastics facility, killing 11 and prompting others to collapse in the streets. According to a top official, unskilled labor mishandled maintenance work and because of that, gas leaked, and lives were lost. Had the workers understood the consequences, perhaps they would have more diligently followed protocols during India’s coronavirus shutdown to ensure that the styrene tanks did not warm up.

It is critical that laborers, gas-pipe fitters, fuel tank technicians, repair crews, refinery workers, solar panel installers, architects, and others follow and apply codes, standards, standard operating procedures, and manufacturer guidance to avoid catastrophes. Unfortunately, that was not the case in South Korea last April when welders at a construction site there initiated a fast-moving fire when hot work sparks ignited urethane in exposed insulation. Thirty-eight workers paid the price with their lives and 10 more were seriously injured. Whether the workers, some foreign, were familiar with South Korean labor laws related to hot work safety is unknown. What is abundantly clear though is that safety training and ongoing skill development for workers is non-negotiable if we are going to reduce deadly workplace accidents.

OSHA recognized the importance of worker safety 45 years ago and set out to change the fate of those that work in the electrical industry. As OSHA highlighted their focus on electrical safety, NFPA established a committee that worked on electrical safety requirements for employee workplaces. The result was NFPA 70E Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace. NFPA 70E is compatible with OSHA requirements for employee safety and consists of four major parts: Installation Safety Requirement; Safety-Related Work Practices; Safety-Related Maintenance Requirements; and Safety Requirements for Special Equipment.

Electrical trade unions, professional organizations for those that work in the industry, NFPA, and others work diligently to educate workers on the importance of safety in the workplace on a daily basis, and in particular in May when we celebrate National Electrical Safety Month. But even with all the outreach and advocacy, NFPA research on occupational injuries and electrical incident data, and the existence of NFPA 70E, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, on average, there are more than 2,000 non-fatal electrical injuries at work each year and in 2018, there were 160 electrical fatalities—an 18 percent increase over the previous year and the highest number of fatalities since 2011. We can and must do better to keep workers safe. Electrical injuries can be particularly debilitating, oftentimes involving complicated recoveries and lasting emotional and physical impact. To drive this point home, NFPA and the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors recently collaborated on a “Faces of Fire” electrical safety awareness campaign which featured personal stories from people impacted by electrical incidents. The series called for ongoing education about electrical hazards in the workplace and at home and highlighted personal stories of electrical burn survivors whose lives have been forever altered. The campaign effectively shows how more understanding, training, and a change in work culture could have significantly impacted occupational outcomes. One particularly poignant episode features an interview with a physician who is dedicated to the complete physical and emotional healing of patients suffering from burn injuries. Faces of Fire/Electrical is a powerful reminder about the importance of skilled labor and proactive safety practices.

The Ecosystem also stresses the importance of having well-trained first responders. Today we ask firefighters to be prepared for and to respond to not only fires but a myriad of emergencies—including pandemic medical calls, civil unrest, natural disasters and active shooter incidents. The latter led us to develop NFPA 3000 Standard for an Active Shooter / Hostile Event Response Program nearly three years ago, and serves as an exceptional example of fire, police, EMS, facility managers, school officials, and others coming together in a way never seen before. NFPA 3000 stresses the importance of unified command in the interest of public and responder safety. The holistic approach of NFPA 3000, much like the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, calls for an integrated approach to safety.

Keeping responders out of harm’s way is exactly why NFPA and the Fire Protection Research Foundation, our research affiliate, strive to get out in front of issues. Back in 2009 we received our first grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop electric/hybrid vehicle training. Two years later, we started to teach responders about alternative fuel vehicle safety issues in 48 states. Our work continues in that realm today thanks to another round of DOE funding designed to help drive community preparedness for electric vehicle (EV) growth in the U.S. The current three-year project will assist communities in evaluating their EV infrastructure, training programs, incentives, and code compliance readiness, while formulating a plan that raises awareness and prioritizes the safe adoption of EVs across the country.

Our work with renewables led us to mitigating another potential responder hazard. In 2016, we launched Energy Storage Systems (ESS) and Solar Safety for the Fire Service training – the first of its kind in the world. We then released NFPA 855 Standard for the Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems which provides the minimum requirements for reducing the hazards associated with ESS. Given that innovation changes at warp speed, we expanded and enhanced our ESS training for first responders in 2019—thanks to a second FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant. Weeks after that training debuted, eight firefighters and a police officer were injured at a solar ESS facility in Arizona. Suddenly, interest in responder safety soared. The Arizona responders answered the call to inspect an ESS fire, the situation quickly escalated, and an explosion blew the container’s doors off. It is incidents like this, and the ongoing challenge to motivate people to learn about new hazards, that led to two current efforts. We are developing new ESS training, a book and an interactive game that will teach firefighters about the potential hazards associated with distributed energy sources including ESS. A second program on related dangers is being developed for code officials.

Ensuring that professionals and practitioners are skilled on safety basics and emerging threats can be an uphill battle; but it is worth the often-cumbersome climb. Use the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem to spur some new thinking and safety strategies for your work environment. I am confident that you will find ways to influence positive change beyond the Skilled Labor and Preparedness and Emergency Response components that I touched on in this piece.

After all, we cannot let complacency or progress outpace safety.

This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2021 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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