Spill Management Inc. Response Team Training Services Spill Management Inc. Specualized Response Training For Chemical Spills, ISO 14001 (4.4.7) Standard For Emergency Preparedness
Search Go

Never assume is the first rule with hazardous materials

Download Never assume is the first rule with hazardous materials PDF!
Response / Training
Today, more people are becoming involved with responding to hazardous materials incidents. The awareness of dangerous goods has brought an influx of new personnel into such areas as police, fire, utilities, industry, support and resource services. Many of these people have been promoted or appointed to responsible roles with little experience. As a result, the first rule in handling a hazardous material has been over looked - never assume.

Organized response teams began responding to spills long before the mandatory labelling, placarding and material safety data sheet system made the cautionary information more apparent.

Training was, for the most part, shared information developed by knowledgeable individuals and taught at special colleges on site. The procedure for approaching unknown chemicals and situations was to approach with a high level of awareness. Learning to be your own safety officer and being aware of team members' ability to function clearly were also important factors. The most important rule is never assume anything - including that the placards or the label on the container are correct. These are only indicators - human error may be causing the problem.

Within the last two years, promotional and training materials are leaning more to the sensational and disaster aspects of hazardous material incidents. The serious common sense approaches are being embellished to instil fear in those that respond to spills. This fear or excitement is further stimulated with the use of news articles, pictures, video footage and the demonstrations of chemical reactions.

To further enhance the sensation of awareness training, people began to believe - not understand - statements such as:
Hazardous materials are going to hurt you.
Roll-doors on the backs of trucks are going to cause an explosion.
Don't go near the chemical, the plume will knock you out - even if you're outdoors.

These statements may be true in specific instances, but they are not well qualified. If you know and respect the properties of the chemical you are working with, you won't get hurt. However, if you assume you know, and you assume nothing could go wrong, you could get killed.

The truck's roll-up doors are a potential source of ignition, so is your clothing, and a thunderstorm passing overhead … but someone forgot the "flash point."

The vapour clouds or plumes tend to spread out like oil in water, and, in most cases, the problem is not being quantified to the volume spilled. The people making these statements don't have enough hands-on experience and knowledge to assess the probable hazards of a substance or the potential by-products.

The first rule in handling hazardous materials becomes more clouded and obscure as the new responder begins his training. Few of the "how to do's" are taught. Instead, level 'A' response and site management to the disaster level is the focus. As a result, spills are not handled as well as many debriefings would have us believe, and the apprenticeship system is non-existent. The countermeasures for environmental impact procedures become muddling processes. The newly trained responder or site coordinator is best qualified to secure the site, not let anyone in, evacuate the area and make risk assumptions based on hearsay rather than understanding and facts.

Recently, at a tanktruck rollover, an individual with more than 25 years of tanktruck and railcar response experience stopped at the police line and identified himself to an officer. He was told all was well and proceeded on to work.

Nine hours into the incident, the same man was phoned and asked to aid in the transfer and to do the site restoration.

The site coordinators and response agencies who are responding to hazardous material incidents are assuming a lot of expertise to let a person of this calibre slip by.

Never Assume
...the person is authorized to be in the area.
...the fire truck with flashing lights can provide the expertise to handle the situation.
...the worker doesn't know the properties of the chemical.
...the chemical is stable.
...the vapours are not toxic.
...the leaking container is of good integrity.
...the job is routine.
...your instructions are fully understood.

Remember the rules are the same.
The profile is higher.
Therefore, the first rule at a hazardous material incident is...
Never Assume.

Cliff Holland, Spill Management Inc.

An extended version of this article was published in Environmental Science & Engineering