Knowing how to respond to a hazardous materials incident is essential for any occupational safety professional, particularly in companies that regularly use acids, cyanides, gases, and other noxious and flammable substances in their work. It is the industry standard to follow an eight-step process if and when a HAZMAT situation should arise.
STEP 1: Site Management & Control
Determine a safe approach to go in and take charge of the impacted site. Evacuate any remaining persons and cordon off the perimeter of the hazard zone. Create a secure staging area for rescuers and other responders who have been alerted to the situation.
STEP 2: Identifying the Problem
Understand what materials are onsite and look for any breaches to containment. Determine where the hazard is emanating from and if it can be controlled. Predict what could occur next based on the nature of the materials, their location, and proximity to workers or the general public.
STEP 3: Hazard & Risk Evaluation
Evaluate the ongoing risk of the spill or leakage including the potential for fire or explosion. Assess any physical symptoms being experienced by individuals who were at the location when the hazard first emerged. This can tell you a lot about the material involved. For example, headaches could be evidence of carbon monoxide. Coupled with a sweet odor, the culprit could be benzene or hydrocarbons. Burning eyes and throat indicate acids of some kind, while a euphoric feeling can point to ketones.
STEP 4: Protective Clothing & Equipment
Closer investigation of any hazardous materials breach requires the use of proper protective gear and equipment. This can include everything from a positive pressure self-contained breathing apparatus to a full coverage HAZMAT suit. Monitoring equipment should also be deployed to gauge air quality, radioactivity levels and other environmental quality measures. Thermal imaging cameras and infrared thermometers can also be helpful in scanning a larger area for contaminants.
STEP 5: Information Management & Resource Coordination
Information sharing is critical, both within the organization and with external sources including news media. All available resources should also be mobilized to help keep the hazard area protected from entry by outside parties. Depending on the type of hazard, this area could span up to a 1/3-mile radius. Meanwhile, response teams will need to be directed to the site and given all available information to take the proper actions.
STEP 6: Implementing Response Objectives
Continue to evolve your plan of action based on the knowledge you have gained to this point, and the type of resources available to you. Implement your plan in accordance with local emergency response plans and standard operating procedures for your workplace. Ensure that all measures are being taken to ensure safety while also getting the hazardous materials under control.
STEP 7: Decontamination
The speed and intensity of your decontamination efforts will depend on the severity of the situation. If the hazard is not life threatening, you can take the time to set up a formal decon station. If, however, lives are in peril, do not wait to begin decon efforts. Cut any clothing away from the affected persons and hose them down immediately, doing your best to contain hazardous run-off from the water.
STEP 8: Terminating the Incident
This final step has four components: (1) Incident Debriefing to be conducted immediately after the emergency has passed, before responders leave the scene; (2) Post-Incident Analysis which provides a formal review of the event; (3) Incident Critique which evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the overall response; and (4) Reporting and Documentation.
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