The Research Technician

The Research Technician function is certainly not the most glamorous a person can perform, but it is one of the most important functions on the HazMat Team.


Take a good look around the next hazardous materials emergency you're on. We're not talking about a severed natural gas line or leaking saddle tank on a tractor trailer involved in an accident, but a working chemical emergency like a leaking rail car or an incident at a chemical facility. You'll see the entry team, the back-up team and personnel staffing the decon corridor. You'll also see, tucked away somewhere away from all the action, a person making some very difficult decisions. No, it's not the Incident Commander. It's someone the Incident Commander and the HazMat Team look to for information and guidance. That person is the Research Technician. Let's take a look at what the Research Technician does and some of the qualities necessary to be a good Research Technician.

First and foremost, the Research Technician (RT for short) gathers and interprets any available data on the chemical. This data may written in the form of Material Safety Data Sheets or Tier II Reports. It may also be oral communication between the RT and site personnel such as process operators, Safety Managers or other facility personnel. It may come from First Responders in the form of shipping papers, placards or container identification. In the case of an unknown, the RT may have to take and interpret whatever information is relayed from an entry or recon team. Determining what the product is or may be is the first step in mitigating the incident.

Now that the product has been determined, what exactly is it? What are its properties? What does it react with? What is it used for and what are its particular hazards to people or the environment? The RT analyzes the information found in such books as the Chemical Hazard Response Information System (CHRIS), NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards, Merck Index, Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference, Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards and Sax's Dangerous Properties of Industrial Materials just to name a few as this library varies from team to team. Computer resources such as CAMEO (Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations), WISER (Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders), CHEMWATCH and the Chemical Reactivity Worksheet may also be consulted. Resources such as CAMEO can be of great assistance when the product is an unknown. What if you're involved with an incident where you have no paperwork or placards? What if all you have to go on is a physical description? The RT should be able to take this information and run a query in CAMEO. While this query may not be able to give you the exact product involved, it should narrow the possibilities down to the point where you can begin to make some decisions on how to begin mitigating the incident until more information can be obtained from the entry team or other sources. The RT presents this information to the entry team in particular and the rest of the team in general during the pre-entry briefing.

Once the product is known, what next? The RT determines the proper level of PPE based on the product and its hazards. Is SCBA required or will a respirator suffice? If a respirator will suffice, will an APR be satisfactory or will a PAPR be required? Are the cartridges on the respirator suitable for the product in question? If so, for how long? What kind of suit is required? Can turnout gear be used or is it going to be "Level A all the way"? What type of gloves will provide the best protection and how many layers will be worn? Are latex booties required over the boots? How long will the protective ensemble withstand the chemical exposure? All of these questions must be answered by the RT prior to the entry team suiting up.

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