Not long ago, "respiratory protection" simply meant protecting workers whose jobs put them in environments that were threatened by one or more hazards. These hazards were typically "byproducts" of the industrial manufacturing process, such as chemicals, particulates and lack of oxygen, or environmental conditions dictated by that industry, such as mining, firefighting and tank cleaning.

Another factor that simplified respiratory protection in the past was that any industry with a chronological history also carried a history of hazard knowledge. Years of experience had taught generations of workers what hazards to expect.

Weathering the storm

Today, however, the fallout from recent terrorist activities suggests new potential dangers to our workplaces from unknown hazards that can strike at any time. There is no clear expectation or pattern for these new threats, which can lead to exposure to unpredictable, invasive poisons. These threats make even business people who work in accounting, marketing, purchasing and other such offices susceptible to an emergency situation.

Most industrial organizations have long-standing plans for emergency response to internal incidents and similar events on their job site. In this changing world, regardless of your industry, your company should be equipped to respond to disaster-type events caused by outside forces.

It is wise to prepare at least for the most likely disaster, planning and assembling all necessary emergency gear and supplies so you can "weather the storm." If your organization or facility is large and has a prominent place in the community, chances are that local, county and state government plans may (or will soon) include your facility.

Many organizations are re-examining or initiating emergency response programs to include evacuation programs for ALL workers at their facilities. High-visibility companies in the utility, chemical and petrochemical industries, for example, with longtime safety programs, have increased their vigilance and preparedness. But companies in commercial industries that previously never had reason for security concerns are also now issuing badges and employing security organizations to safeguard their facilities.

Fortify your program

Here are some ways you can fortify your safety program in light of heightened security awareness:

  • Review current and potential hazards and identify possible scenarios that could involve your job site.

  • Review your list of first responders, educate your response team and retrain/train them on potential new hazards.

  • Update your equipment. Many times response equipment is locked up in storage and is often old and in poor condition. Make sure it is in proper working order.

  • Review your supplies. Do you have enough SCBA or gas masks for your first responders? Are there enough spare cylinders, facepieces and filters?

  • Stockpile adequate personal protective equipment. At a time when most organizations are trying to cut inventories, having surplus inventory of PPE sounds ludicrous. But one of the lessons learned after the World Trade Center event was that many organizations (including government agencies) were short of the personal protection they needed to function. Verify that you have all types, and sizes, of PPE that might be required. Remember, the right equipment may not be readily available during an emergency.

  • Check your portable instruments. Do you have enough sampling equipment? Is it calibrated? Do your people know how to use it properly?

  • Provide emergency escape gas masks to office workers in key locations.

  • Review and update procedures. They may have been written some time ago. Do they still address the current and potential site hazards?

  • Coordinate with your local authorities so that they understand your site layout and specific hazards. Conduct joint training and drills, and include response organizations.