January 15, 2019 / Brigette Polmar

Emergency Preparedness and Response after Crisis and Catastrophe

Responding to crises poses a wide variety of challenges for industrial hygienists. At AIHce EXP 2018, attendees were given a window into three very different crisis response situations and shared their lessons learned.

Subway Release

John Archer, MS, CIH, with the EPA Office of Research and Development’s National Homeland Security Research Center, explored chlorine exposure during a biological decontamination study. “Essentially what we were doing is looking at a mock subway system, and our intent was to figure out how we can potentially decontaminate the subway system after an intentional biological release,” Archer said. “If there is a potential biological release to a subway system, how do we get that subway system back in operation? How do we minimize the damage, minimize exposure, or minimize the cost?” The study was conducted at the U.S. Army’s Fort A.P. Hill using a non-pathogenic bacterial spore surrogate that behaves similarly to bacillus anthracis.

“Essentially, we looked at sampling,” Archer explained. “So, if there's a biological release, how do you sample the surface? How do you sample the air? How do you characterize it? How do you determine what's contaminated, what's not contaminated? And then, obviously, one of our big focuses is on [decontamination].”

Archer served as site safety officer and collected chlorine exposure data on decontamination workers. “Health and safety is integral in a situation like this,” he said. “We had extreme hazards. So, we wanted to make sure that people were protected properly and that this wasn't something that we could engineer out. The pH-amended bleach presents a high hazard with the chlorine vapor.”

Archer told attendees that automation may play an important role in future responses. “There are things like orchard sprayers that have a radial spray pattern,” he said. “You can load decontamination solution, put [the sprayer] on the rail cart, and move it through the subway and actually decontaminate it without people being in there.”

Flint Water Crisis

Steve Neilson, MS, CIH, with the Department of Energy, was born in Flint, Mich., and had family living there when changes were made to the drinking water supply in 2014, triggering contamination issues for consumers. Neilson said that the consequences of the Flint water crisis include long-lasting effects to public health and the loss of public confidence.

“As tragic as this event is, it would be an additional tragedy if we don't attempt to have some lessons learned that we can apply to our own organizations,” Neilson said. He offered the following lessons learned from the crisis:

  1. Always presume your customers’ complaints are legitimate.
  2. Your ethical convictions may be tested the most when you’re contending with other crises.
  3. Don’t rely on regulatory actions or inactions as your barometer of performance.
  4. Your internal audit program should include some deep-dive analysis to spot check raw data.
  5. Community relations must be based on open communications and not selective communications.
  6. Be mindful of both real and perceived conflicts of interest in your organization’s management structure.
  7. Confirm that your organization’s mission is understood and that the mission includes implementation of policies and procedures.
  8. Recovering public trust should include additional and sustained transparency.

In the Wake of an Explosion

“As industrial hygienists, we get to go to unpleasant places where unpleasant things have recently happened,” said Andy Rowland, CIH. In June 2016, Rowland was called to the site of a massive explosion at a natural gas plant in Mississippi. The field of debris from the blast extended to a 100-yard radius. “We were there just a couple of days after the explosion occurred. Our job was to see to it that [inspectors from the Chemical Safety Board] are not harmed while they try to do their job, which is to find out why we had the explosion and how to prevent it. We had no fatalities during the event or after the event.”

Rowland encouraged IHs to consider all of the potential hazards created by a catastrophe before approaching the scene. “First, do no harm,” he said. “Not only must you think in positive proactive terms, but you have to also consciously plan to make sure that bad things don't happen. Might there be lead or silica exposure potential? Are there ergonomic hazards? Yes. We absolutely have the potential for an injury here as well.”

Based on the Mississippi crisis response, Rowland had this advice in the wake of a catastrophe: “If you get a case like this, get a CIH, get a CSP, and get a structural engineer who has a strong basis in life safety issues. That's your combination for a safe project where everybody gets to go home at the end of the day.”

Brigette Polmar

Brigette Polmar is a professional brand journalist who covers the industrial hygiene profession, AIHA member news, AIHce EXP, and more. A former Washington correspondent and broadcast journalist, Polmar is the founder of Brand Spoken, which specializes in industry-specific coverage on paper, online, and on the air.


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