June 7, 2021

IH Shares Lessons Learned from Catastrophic Event Response

By Ed Rutkowski

June 7, 2021—On April 15, 2020, a rupture in a pressure vessel at a paper mill in Jay, Maine, caused an explosion that spewed wood pulp and other materials around the site and outside the fence line. When Sarah Anderson arrived the next day to help direct cleanup efforts, she found a scene of devastation: mangled equipment, scattered debris, and unstable structures. The incident caused no injuries or deaths, but the seven-month cleanup presented significant challenges, which Anderson discussed in a presentation delivered as part of Virtual AIHce EXP 2021. Drawing on her 25 years of experience in the oil, gas, petrochemical, and manufacturing industries, Anderson distilled her experiences into practical lessons for other OEHS professionals who find themselves in the demanding role of responding to a catastrophic event.

“When you arrive on site and you see something like this,” Anderson said, showing images of the wrecked facility, “how do you even start?”

The place to start, in this and most emergency situations, is with securing the scene. “People are very inspired to get operations back up and running,” Anderson said, but they may inadvertently disturb evidence needed for an investigation or put themselves in harm’s way. This motivation to help may have been even more pronounced in Jay, a town of 5,000 about 30 miles northwest of Augusta, Maine’s capitol. Many of the mill’s 500 employees were residents of Jay, and the close-knit community was heavily invested in getting the facility operational again.

There were four sources of radiation on site, so one of the team’s top priorities was ensuring those sources hadn’t been compromised and then closing off the area. Asbestos-containing materials were another major concern. Anderson’s team brought in professionals who confirmed that no asbestos was present in the community and continuously monitored asbestos levels at the site. Other chemical hazards included hydrogen sulfide, which is a common byproduct of paper mills; caustic process liquids; and chlorine gas. The team set up area monitors for hydrogen sulfide that would sound alarms if harmful levels were detected. Using pH strips, the team ensured that cleanup workers either stayed away from caustic liquids or wore appropriate personal protective equipment. As for the chlorine—one of the most serious risks the team identified—the gas was drained from the mill’s storage tanks so there would be no chance of a potentially deadly mishap.

For hazards that couldn’t be eliminated, such as asbestos, noise, silica, and heat stress, the team prepared educational kits for workers and supplemented these materials with posters to remind them of their training. All workers had to wear steel-toed shoes and hardhats; in some areas, additional PPE such as gloves and hearing protection was also required.

None of the team’s efforts would have been as effective if they hadn’t paid careful attention to their communications. An incident like the one in Jay requires engagement with many different stakeholders, including the surrounding community; personnel from EPA, OSHA, and the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board; as well as site managers and legal counsel. Each of these audiences has specific concerns; the people from EPA, for example, were solely interested in how the team was managing asbestos hazards. The key skill for OEHS professionals is to tailor communications to each of these audiences, Anderson said.

Communicating effectively with workers at the site required a high level of engagement to ensure that the proper message was being received. As cleanup work proceeds, some hazards are mitigated while new ones are introduced; constant, consistent communication is necessary to keep everyone on the same page. Anderson recommended holding recurring meetings at the same time and on the same day so that workers are more likely to attend and obtain crucial updates. The presence of an OEHS professional at these meetings helps ensure workers understand the risks of certain activities. One day during the cleanup in Jay, Anderson learned at a meeting that workers were planning to use generators to supply electrical power to a confined work area, which could have exposed workers to carbon monoxide from the generators. “If I hadn’t been involved in the meetings, they wouldn’t have known that ventilation was going to be a concern,” Anderson said.

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the use of generators in a confined work area could have exposed workers to carbon dioxide. The article was updated on July 30, 2021, to reflect that workers could have been exposed to carbon monoxide from the generators.