Hazardous Materials Safety

Hazardous materials response is a dangerous business! Chief John Eversole, recently retired from the Chicago Fire Department HazMat Division, has offered one of the best definitions to describe our actions at these emergencies when he stated that hazmat response is "putting the tiger back in the cage". The analogy is appropriate; tigers have big teeth, big appetites, and they can eviscerate us at a moments notice. Similarly, hazardous materials (hazmats) can maim by combusting, by exploding, or by its corrosive nature (among other things). Putting hazmats back in their container, then, can be very daunting endeavors. However, with a proper attitude toward safety and a healthy respect of the nature of the hazardous material releases we encounter we can handle these emergencies without injuries to responders.

Inherent Danger

Hazmat response is inherently dangerous. Since 1970 more than 50 responders have been killed in the line of duty while responding to hazmat incidents according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). A brief listing of some major tragedies are testament to this fact. Locations such as Kingman, Waverly, Buffalo, Kansas City, and even obscure locations such as Burnside, Illinois and Albert City, Iowa have all had hazmat disasters in which first responders were killed. Another statistic by the IAFF also reports that firefighters are 6 times more likely to get injured at a hazmat incident than a structure fire.

What are the reasons for these statistics? The causal factors are actually numerous. Our cavalier, aggressive attitudes have been instilled in us since recruit school and all of us have been trained to enter the building at a structure fire with the least delay and "slay the dragon". It has been proven that this approach is not the way hazmat emergencies should be handled because rushing in leads to needless hazmat exposures. Since most of our behavior is learned it is very difficult to "re-learn" how to respond safely to hazmat emergencies. But this excuse is merely a disguise for inadequate or a lack of effective training.

Some other reasons for these statistics may be sheer ignorance of the material's hazards by response personnel, or responders may be totally complacent at hazmat emergencies and think, "this stuff will not hurt me!" Finally, responders can, and have been, surprised by the presence of a hazmat. This can happen on any emergency but unfortunately, many responders have simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

HazMat Response Team Safety

Hazmat response teams have had excellent safety records over their two or three decade history. Very few deaths and or major injuries have been recorded since Jacksonville, Florida initiated the country's first hazmat team in the mid-1970's. The only documented death to a hazmat team member occurred in Shreveport, Louisiana in September 1984. At this event a team member sustained third degree burns over 90% of his body and died six hours after the anhydrous ammonia atmosphere he was in ignited. His partner was also badly burned but survived at the cold storage facility incident.

Most documented hazmat injuries have been minor in nature. In fact, over the last decade the rate of injuries for hazmat response teams across the country has declined possibly due to experience by team members, improved standard operating guidelines, or better personal protective equipment.

Safe HazMat Response

The art of responding to hazmat emergencies safely is to avoid getting "scratched or bitten by the tiger" or injured while handling the hazardous material. To do so requires constant vigilance and adherence to many safety principles. In essence responders need a constant awareness of all hazards and a healthy respect for the dangers inherent with hazmat responses. It is also paramount to know "what-to-do" and "what-not-to do" at hazmat incidents. This requires being cognizant of our limitations, which come in the form of the equipment available, the training of our personnel, and other incident logistics. We need to honestly assess our ability to handle some incidents and not be ashamed or dishonored to admit when an incident is beyond our capabilities.

Developing the Right Attitude

The word and concept of safety has to be more than a buzzword; it has to be a way of life within a hazmat response program. Mere lip service will not do and anything less than a total commitment to safe hazmat responses will jeopardize the credibility of a hazmat program. This total commitment needs to be constantly displayed and promoted from the top of the organization down to the bottom. It also has to be absolute with no shortcuts taken in order to retain integrity in the program. When these things occur safety, then, becomes an attitude. The concept of safety should become an integral thread of an organization's culture.

This is not to say that at all responses every available safety system and appropriate types of equipment will be in place before operations begin. It does address the fact that all "reasonable" measures are employed to assist in ensuring the safety of all personnel before and during the response operations. To do any less than this compromises the system and this "slippery slope" will lead to deterioration of safety with the result being increased injuries. Therefore, it behooves administers to constantly maintain, enforce, and even upgrade the safety elements of their hazmat response programs. The eye should be toward incremental improvements.

What is Safety?

It is important to define just what "safety" means and what it means to be safe. If we turn to a standard dictionary safety can be defined as "the condition of being safe; secure from danger, harm, or evil; free from danger or injury; free from risk". Another source states that safety is the condition of being secure from undergoing or causing, hurt, injury, or loss. In addition to the above definitions, John Sachen offers the following definition from his popular video "Firefighting; It's a Risky Business". John states that safety is "the elimination of hazards and the reduction of risk". This definition becomes a good working model for us to utilize. Realize, however, that it will be rare to totally eliminate the hazards a material presents but it can be handled in a safe manner. Likewise, it will be impossible to totally eliminate risk (the exposure to danger) but it can be reduced greatly. An important concept to remember is to approach the elimination of hazards and the reduction of risk in reasonable terms. Reasonable but safe!

Principles of Safety

The following concepts are principles of safety that can be used to enhance the well being of all hazmat personnel. They should be reviewed often and can even be included in response checklists to help prompt us.

Develop a sense of situational awareness at all hazmat emergencies.

Think safety at all times.
Respond the safest way with the least risk to accomplish a task. If a situation is too risky or your personnel lack the proper training or the proper equipment to do the job safely then that job should not be attempted. Again, honestly assess your capabilities with an eye toward your limitations. Call for the personnel or specialists who are qualified to do the job safely. Establish a resource list of these personnel or private contractors with their skills and equipment.

Establish Offensive/Defensive Safety Postures
Identify the hazards on the scene that can be controlled and the methods of control. Also, identify the hazards that cannot be controlled but which all responders need to have an awareness. Strive to find the answer(s) to the question-what could happen in this present circumstance? And take appropriate control actions.

Huddle up!
Upon arrival at the scene of the hazmat release get everyone together and communicate what is known at the time. This concept is similar to what football teams do before each play. This gets everyone on the same page in a communication sense and it conveys the message that communication is paramount to safety and that everyone will be involved in the activities at the emergency.

The meeting of the minds is also important to discuss the response actions by the team. It is important to realize that no one person has the market cornered on hazmat knowledge and at the huddle-up every member should have a chance to offer their ideas as to how to handle the situation. Do not break until all personnel know exactly what their tasks will be. Finally, if an analysis is conducted of nearly every hazmat tragedy a common thread at these incidents is the lack of communication between responders. The huddle-up is an excellent time to avoid the pitfalls that have been common in emergencies that have gone awry.

Work Practice Prevention Measures

Eliminate unsafe conditions