Are You Prepared to Respond to a Chemical Release?

On November 15, 2014, workers at a pesticide plant in Texas were trying to restart the methomyl production line after a 5-day shutdown. They were having problems: A line was plugged and the building ventilation wasn’t working properly. Around 4 a.m., workers opened a drain valve in the vent system to release pressure, without realizing that they would trigger the release of more than 23,000 pounds of methyl mercaptan into the interconnected process vent system inside the building. Four workers died and a fifth was injured.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is still investigating this incident; however, preliminary reports seem to indicate that the company’s preparation for and response to this incident were inadequate in a variety of ways. There were not enough rescue respirators; local incident response organizations were not notified for hours after the release; and emergency responders had no adequate map of the facility’s interior or where victims might be. Let their lack of preparation be a cautionary tale: Make sure you’re prepared to respond appropriately to chemical releases in your workplace.

Be Prepared

In order to ensure that you can respond appropriately when a chemical release occurs, you’ll need to do some advance planning. Look closely at your:

  • Incident management plan: Also known as a crisis management or crisis communication plan, it should cover in detail each step required in the event of an incident, including:
    • Emergency response information. How will emergency responders get to your site? Will you need to provide for unusual situations like air evacuations or communications for employees working in remote areas?
    • Roles and responsibilities. Make sure to list the names and positions of each individual responsible for each aspect of incident management.
    • Communication. Assign communication tasks—be specific about how, when, why, and to whom and by whom information is conveyed.
    • Security. Your plan should list the steps necessary to secure and preserve the site during and after incidents. Be sure to include procedures for chain-of-custody documentation to track potential evidence.
    • Counseling. Identify a preferred counseling service, and arrange in advance for counseling to be available to employees following a catastrophe.

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  • Accident investigation plan: You will, of course, want to thoroughly investigate all incidents and ensure that you’re not making the same mistakes over and over. Be prepared to implement your:
    • Postaccident procedures. These detailed procedures should apply to all levels of accident investigation, from minor to catastrophic.
    • Scene preservation. How will you preserve the accident scene and surrounding area, and for how long?
    • Evidence collection and analysis. Evidence can include anything from physical clues to photographs, witness statements, pertinent documents or drawings, and process flowcharts.
    • Written reports. Following collection and analysis, a written report should be completed. Who gets a copy? Who will be responsible for actionable items?

Accident investigation plan components also include a means to track findings and recommendations, as well as a means to update everyone involved about the progress of the investigation.

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  • Trained supervisors and workers: Let employees know in advance what they’re expected to do, and provide appropriate incident response training at least annually. The level of training necessary will depend on the type of work performed and the possible hazards. Make sure that workers have a chance to practice their roles so that they are more likely to react according to plan if and when an actual incident occurs.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about one method that the CSB recommends to reduce the possibility of a chemical release.