Every year, tens of thousands of significant accidents/incidents occur in workplaces, parks, city streets and homes. The challenge facing those individuals charged with responding to the broad range of incidents can be daunting.

Fortunately, the science of first response, mitigation of property damage, and the drive to prevent potential further human harm from shock and delay has led to great progress in emergency response. Advancements in rapid deployment of assistance assets, procedures, response personnel training and capabilities, as well as the availability of state-of-the-art equipment have aided the cause. When you also factor in the dedication and courage of the men and women of response teams, the reasons for their excellent overall performance record become quite clear. But, the challenge is not a stationary target.

At the University of Nevada, Reno, Fire Science Academy, we are dedicated to not only providing the best responder training for today's challenges using today's tools, but also to keeping private and public sector emergency responders up-to-date on the ever-changing risk environment and the advances in equipment and procedures. To that end, this article is intended to provide a sense of the changing environment in industrial safety, and to discuss the needed changes to our thinking to reflect the nature and scope of today's broadened range of threats.

More products, more dangers

Throughout the industrial revolution, the proliferation of product types and technologies gave rise to an ever-increasing range of potential dangers from both industrial tools and chemical agents used in manufacturing. When we think of the environmental dangers imposed on early-1900's mine workers, for example, we probably conjure up thoughts of a much more dangerous period in industrial safety than that of today. However, in terms of gross numbers of workers and the range of potential dangers, that is simply not true. While mine safety procedures have advanced dramatically, the use of cyanide in mining, for example, is more prevalent today than ever before.

The truth is that in most industries, as products and technologies continue to proliferate, there seems to be a correlation between technological growth and workplace dangers. Additionally, cost controls and competitive pressures serve to exacerbate the challenge.

Yet another complication is the fact that the effects of urban sprawl often result in a shrinking buffer between industrial facilities and local populations. This, along with the aforementioned growth in the use of dangerous chemicals needed for new technologies, can lead to chemical and process accidents more readily affecting off-site areas.

New dilemma

Finally, the issue of intentional, man-made catastrophes is now, unfortunately, a part of our everyday lives. Where in the past industrial responders may have worried primarily about leaking vessels, they must now consider human causes as well. Not only does this broaden the scope of possible situations we might face, but it also raises several other considerations:

  • Responders must now face the reality that an on-site event might not be "over" when they arrive, posing a possible continuing danger of escalation to themselves and their victims.

  • The storage and use procedures for hazardous substances have traditionally recognized that non-procedural use or equipment failures could lead to "accidental" exposures. The possibility of intentional introduction, or theft for later use, changes the security and accident response paradigm dramatically. The fact is, many necessary industrial agents, such as chlorine or cyanide, can be used in terrorist activities.

  • While not specifically a responder situation, industrial safety management must also face the fact that potential outside attacks could target their plant not to directly damage it, but to obtain hazardous chemical agents to be used elsewhere.

    The responders' response

    Simply stated, today's responder must be more aware and better organized, trained, prepared and equipped than ever before. While our safety and first response challenges are greater than ever, we can continue to address them to the same level of excellence exhibited in the past. Safety professionals need to logically step through a comprehensive planning and operating process. Consider this four-step approach:

    1) Assess your situation - Times have changed. As mentioned earlier, the scope of the industrial threat has grown due to technological advancements and their associated manufacturing complexities, as well as the relatively recent terrorist phenomenon. Safety professionals need to spend time evaluating local situations and recognizing the real scope of the threat to their constituents.

    Time and access to incident sites and victims is more critical than ever, especially since the threats involve both a wider range of causes and a dramatically larger possible victim pool, often spread over a much larger geography. In that regard, rural locations oftentimes are the worst-case scenario, because of longer access times and the fact that terrorists can usually target outlying areas much easier.

    2) Plan, prepare, train - Once a comprehensive assessment is completed:

    • Plan for most conceivable eventualities. "Surprises" are what happen to the unprepared!
    • Prepare for every eventuality. Define and initiate written policies and procedures, if they are not already in place. If they are, make sure they are up-to-date, given the changes we've discussed.
    • Train all members of the response team in the detail of the plan and procedures to be followed. Supplement conventional training with simulations or "war games," based on anticipated possibilities.

    3) Find and use every advantage - Recent events, both terrorist-related and more traditional incidents, have led to a rise in the positive aspects of public/private partnerships in both immediate response and after-incident activities. This is not only a very healthy development where incidents have occurred, but it can also serve as a model for preparedness in other areas. Often times, needed expertise is resident in local industry or municipalities, which can speed and multiply the effectiveness of the response. The issue becomes teamwork, and that teamwork can enhance relationships between industry and private citizens - yet another positive.

    4) Equip yourself to succeed - As with anything else, using the right tools can provide huge advantages in tackling difficult assignments like safety preparedness in today's world. Necessity is the mother of invention, and necessity has driven the development of a great new generation of emergency and first response products such as portable drench showers and emergency eyewashes. These products make the changes to the safety and first response paradigm much easier.

    Communities' safety and first response needs are changing and so are the rules. The good news is that the tools are also advancing. I'm delighted to say that overall the safety community is "winning the war!" Rest assured that the Fire Science Academy and our compatriots will continue to strive to help safety pros stay on the cutting edge!

    SIDEBAR: 5 keys to emergency preparedness planning

    1) Consider the full range of emergencies. The types of emergencies that can occur are constantly expanding. Develop a process for identifying the most important potential emergencies.

    2) Integrate your plans into operations. Emergency response should be considered an operational issue, not just a regulatory one. Give all staff clearly defined roles and responsibilities in the response plan, and incorporate input from operations.

    3) The plans should reflect real behavior in an actual emergency. Have representatives from throughout the company participate in developing emergency preparedness plans. This larger pool of staff provides a broader array of perspectives that elicits realistic planning.

    4) Keep the plans updated. Treat emergency response as a continuous process where procedures are tested, refined and revised on an ongoing basis.

    5) Consider business continuity. Response plans typically focus on immediate emergency, not the recovery process after. They should include a business recovery process, including peoples' roles and responsibilities for the transition back to full operation.

    Source: Matthew Goldman, P.E., Weston Solutions, Inc.