Chemical Plant Safety Tips Easily Forgotten

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Today, a handful of safety lessons which are easy to forget when visiting a chemical plant:

Dangerous chemicals:

And I thought they smelled bad...on the outside!

What if you didn't have the goggles?

  • Every plant worth its salt will have Material Safety Datasheets (MSDSs) in prominent locations, and proper training, for each hazard. These sheets provide specific guidance on to do if you’re exposed to the chemical and advice for dealing with fires. Training on how to use MSDS sheets is ubiquitous and it should be easy to get some, if you didn’t gain experience with these sheets while getting your degree
  • If you are ever exposed to a “mystery chemical,” a good rule of thumb is this: if exposed in your body/eyes, run for a safety shower/eye wash station and wash your body/eyes out thoroughly, for up to 15 minutes, while calling someone else to get help. When showering, remove exposed clothes as they may be contaminated. Do not induce vomiting. There are plenty of exceptions where this is unnecessary or even dangerous, which is why you check the MSDS first. But this is a typically the right response
  • If the work you are doing means that you may need to use an eyewash station, prepare before you start working. Stop yourself and visualize in your mind how you can stumble to the eyewash station while blinded. What direction can you head for? What wall will you feel along? Etc.
  • If a site has multiple chemicals, don’t mix and match Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) from different zones. For example, there are specialty gloves that can stand up to pools of ultra-dangerous Hydrogen Fluoride for over an hour, yet disintegrate in face of deadly deadly mayonnaise

Respirators:

  • These face-masks prevent from you inhaling dangerous materials such as chemicals, loose radioactive materials, etc.
  • Check you have the right size mask. Try breathing while covering the inlet ports with your hands, and see that you cannot do it. Also try breathing while covering the exhaust. Check that it’s working and fitting properly
  • Although it’s tempting, don’t pull the respirator aside to shout when you’re hard to understand. Get closer to your coworker, use hand signals, write it down, use a text message, etc.
  • It is normal to find it a little difficult to breathe when you’re wearing respirators correctly.
  • Don’t leave a respirator lying in a dirty environment when you break (e.g. for lunch), and then come back and re-use it. It may become contaminated
  • If dust is a concern you must be extra careful when working above the ground. Dust often collects on top of pipes and ducting
  • If you are capable of growing a beard, be extremely clean-shaven for the area where your face is in contact with the respirator. Do fresh shaving in the morning before you wear the respirator: stubble can decrease a respirator’s effectiveness by as much as 40%. If your shaver sucks invest in a straight razor and some cream

Danger zones (heat, radiation, etc.):

Coal Furnace

(Photo credit: William Warby)

  • If you’re working in a dangerous area limit exposure by doing as much planning and discussion as you can outside of the area, to minimize time spent in the hazard
  • For extremely hot-temperature environments, take frequent water breaks and rotate in and out. The plant should have guidelines on the maximum time you can work before taking a break
  • It’s especially important to have people knowing you’re working there, so you can be checked on if you don’t report in regularly
  • Work in a buddy system so that one person doesn't lose consciousness or mobility and become trapped in the zone
  • Places that make you wear radiation tags will treat them very seriously. Be careful to wear the tag so it works properly, and don’t lose, misuse, or loan it out. Use the tags assigned for the specific job; some areas may require automatically alarming radiation meters, or specific "area" meters worn on the hands, and so on.
  • The rules for radiation exposure will also become more stringent for certain medical conditions, notably pregnancy
  • Be careful about rushing in to save someone trapped in an area with low oxygen. (Say, a confined space like a pressure vessel full of nitrogen). If you also lose consciousness the number of victims to rescue has just been doubled
Fire

Be prepared

Fires Extinguishers:

  • If you are doing work that risks a fire, bring your own extinguisher. If you borrow an extinguisher that has been placed in another part of the plant, others may be counting on that borrowed extinguisher being there for their own emergencies
  • Be aware of any alarms or push-button stop/shutdown systems you can use to warn others and halt a chemical process in the event of a fire

Underground work:

  • Depending on the site and its history, digging even a few inches underground could require an underground work order and checking of relevant drawings and documents to avoid hitting underground lines and wires
  • Many jurisdictions require an “egress” (escape) plan in place for anyone working underground, similar to the restrictions in confined places

 Airborne dangers/shelter-in-place:

  • If a site has a risk of spreading dangerous chemicals into the air, it may have a “shelter-in-place” procedure where you hunker down indoors, in the closest safe spot
  • All things being equal, office buildings are usually safer than plant buildings because they have less airflow and are more carefully designed in terms of windows and doors
  • Move as far indoors as you can, away from doors and windows
  • If caught outside, a vehicle with rolled up windows is better than nothing

Insulation:

  • If unsure, treat all insulation as potentially being asbestos (which risks causing cancer of the lungs). Asbestos should only be cleared by specially qualified workers

Packing before a first visit:

  • Check what protective equipment you’re expected to bring yourself. Steel-toed boots, earplugs, hard hat?
  • Avoid weapons or tools that are a grey area (e.g. swiss army knife) unless you’re sure it’s OK
  • Cameras and cell phones with cameras may not be allowed. If you need pictures at site you may have to sign-out a special camera owned by the plant or get someone who works there to take the pictures
  • If security is onerous or the site is remote, a packed lunch or visit to the site cafeteria could save you some check-in/check-out hassle
  • If you borrow cover-alls or other uniforms from the site be sure to check the pockets on your way out. Not only do you want to avoid forgetting something, you want to avoid laundry personnel hurting themselves
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