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There's More To Chemical Spills Than Moon Suits And Air Packs

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HAZMAT
Response / Training

Moon Suits - Pouring Drum Transfer.jpgChemical spills and hazardous materials are not new to our environment, emergency response personnel, or to the people who have to clean up the products. The recent influx of regulations, safety standards and handling procedures did not happen overnight. For those who have been involved with the chemical and environmental industry, the changes were inevitable.

In the 1960s, environmentally concerned individuals made the cause and effects of chemical pollution visible. Occupational health and safety associations and organizations such as Pollution Probe have increased the awareness of the consequences of polluting and improper handling of chemicals. Industrial accidents such as the Mississauga train derailment helped focus public and government attention on the potential risks and hazards.

As a result, response personnel can access valuable product safety information to ensure as safe a response as possible. This is important for responders who do not work with chemicals on a regular basis, and to initial response teams who respond to all classes of spills. Product-specific and site-specific responders who can pre-plan and practice response procedures may operate with a higher degree of competence because of their higher level of preparedness.

Yesterday

The septic haulers and liquid waste carriers from the 1950s and ’60s probably gave us our first clue that picking up spills was a serious business. Many of them suffered the embarrassment of losing loads due to incompatible tanks and valving systems. Some operators lost entire trucks when uncontrollable chemical reactions occurred. Others escaped serious injury and death when drums exploded, pressurized contents sprayed them or obnoxious vapours made it difficult to persist with their job.

At one time when a spill occurred a septic tank hauler may have handled the situation by simply pumping the spilled product into his tanker and transferring it to a holding tank. A fire department unit may have flushed the spill down the sewer. The public works department or a contractor may have taken the spilled product and buried it because the substance was too dangerous to throw in the garbage. This may be an over simplification of how hazardous material incidents were handled, but it’s not far from the truth.

Today

If another truth be known, substances such as gasoline are still being flushed into the sewer system by the “broom-and-bucket-brigade” level of responders.

A competent responder has a responsibility to himself as well as the protection of life, property and the environment. He would consider the following alternatives before flushing gasoline or any other product into the sewer:

  • Chemical safety data, accessed from dispatch or telephone if the information isn’t available on site.
  • Whether sorbent products and other clean-up materials would control the spill more effectively.
  • The potential consequences of vapours isolated in a confined space. The safety of personnel working in the sewer system, vapour migration into buildings or adjacent confined spaces, likelihood of explosion, potential liability for an unnecessary mishap, etc.
  • The biological impact at the sewage treatment plant.
  • The impact on the environment.

With the large volume containers being used today to store and transport chemicals by road, rail and water, responders to dangerous goods incidents must know their level of competence and expertise.

Spill Response

Response teams often consist of individuals from many different disciplines. The various levels of response are designed to provide guidance and structure for an individual’s level of safety and confidence. It is the responsibility of each responder to know when he has reached his level of competence. Levels of competence may be in such disciplines as product knowledge, consequences of risks, skills, procedures, etc.

Whether an incident is large or small, or whether the response team is trained to handle site-specific, product-specific, or all types of hazardous material incidents, specialized equipment, training, and procedures are required to be effective.

In-house response teams can be brought to a competent level of operation by pre-planning, practising countermeasures and using the on-site response equipment.

A team responding to all types of hazardous material incidents will have to develop effective skills to deal with the unexpected. They may have to employ control procedures and improvise countermeasures during the initial stage of the spill. They may have to rely on their communication and awareness skills to access proper backup equipment, supplies, manpower and support information. As they size up the situation on-site, they must have the capability to readily test, verify and identify known products as well as unknown products for classification and stability. The team must have the rapport to proceed safely and function as a unit.

There is more to chemical spills than ‘moon suits, air packs, brooms and buckets.’ The three natural levels of responders are: initial responder (first on the scene); technically competent responder; and highly specialized responder.

Initial response personnel are people most likely to be first on the scene. Their actions can reduce the loss to life, property and the environment. This level of training requires a common sense approach, utilizing awareness and countermeasures skills.


Cliff Holland, Spill Management Inc.