Several years ago, a plant-wide power outage in Texas forced a plant to flare off products, including sulfur dioxide. As the toxic black smoke drifted into nearby communities, safety officials partially shut down the area and issued a precautionary shelter-in-place alert to protect residents.
Just months ago, a train carrying five rail cars worth of vinyl chloride derailed in Ohio. Each car was unstable and could potentially explode, causing a deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes, according to the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Like the plant in Texas, there was a controlled release of chemicals—but this time, residents had to be fully evacuated to ensure their safety.
While these incidents took place in different locations, both incidents remind us that events beyond our control can and will happen—and that’s why it’s so critical to be prepared for any emergency.
During an unplanned chemical release, there will be more questions than answers. Safety managers may ask things like What’s happening on the ground? What gas is being released? How much was released and where is it going? Could this chemical release spark a fire? Will employees, responders and community members be exposed to dangerous levels of gas? When will that happen? Is it safe to shelter-in-place or should residents evacuate? When will the area be considered safe?
After recent events in Ohio, however, safety managers should be asking, “If this happened to us right now, how would we respond?”
Having an operational readiness model in place is the best way to answer these questions and more. But what does that entail?
What is an Operational Readiness Model?
In short, an operational readiness model is a workplace solution that gives you the ability to prepare for worst-case scenarios and optimize your response plans and day-to-day operation so that you can protect not only your assets but also your people on the ground and the surrounding community.
An operational readiness model also means there’s a common operating picture for everyone. This allows for improved decision-making so teams can respond more quickly to mitigate impact, get back to work faster and much more.
Building a Chemical Emergency Toolkit
Every good operational readiness model should include a chemical emergency toolkit. A chemical emergency toolkit provides a common operating framework during a variety of emergencies that helps you rapidly respond to incidents, limit the financial loss and protect human health.
In communities across the globe, most residents living near chemical facilities have not been trained on how to respond during a chemical accident, meaning it’s up to facilities to protect their communities from any hazardous gases, fires, explosions or other related incidents from the facility.
Including local communities in an operational readiness plan is crucial. By outlining communication plans and training the community and staff on sheltering-in-place and other protective measures, safety managers can assure community members that a facility is ready to handle emergencies quickly and confidently to protect nearby residents.
So, what else should you include to protect your people, plant and community during a chemical emergency?
The first line of defense against gas hazards, particularly ones that could spark a fire or worse, is a small personal monitor. While personal gas monitors are essential and critical in protecting individual personnel, a true emergency response plan requires careful consideration of how these tools can be used in a broader context.
Adding connected area monitoring equipment, for example, greatly improves multi-threat detection, establishes hazard perimeters, monitors for long-term hazards, enables remote monitoring of potential critical receptors and is easy to move as an emergency event unfolds. Plus, connected area monitoring equipment can be further enhanced with real-time weather data and dynamic plume modeling software to predict the path of airborne hazards, allowing you to truly take control of any emergency.
Incorporating real-time weather data in an operational readiness plan and chemical emergency toolkit helps increase the scope of a facility’s ability to respond. Conditions can change rapidly during a crisis, and relying on outdated data can prevent you from making the safest decision.
By understanding live weather conditions surrounding a site, safety managers can pinpoint areas of concern, such as where a fire or gas hazard may spread and ensure the safety of nearby residents. No matter the hazard, real-time weather data determined by plume modeling helps you determine where to deploy team members in an emergency.
Using an Emergency Toolkit…Outside of an Emergency
To get the most value out of an operational readiness plan and chemical emergency toolkit, use them for day-to-day operations as well. When running plume models and preparing for planned events that may be risky, users can take safety plans from reactive to proactive to prevent exposure and reportable incidents.
For example, if your facility is planning a turnaround, you might run models to understand which areas of the site are more likely to be impacted by a leak that could spark into a larger explosion or fire.
With this information, you can strategically place area monitors around the perimeter to alert you if the gas plume extends beyond the expected boundaries. If something goes wrong, you are already prepared and can avoid sending workers into the gas plume to set up gas monitors.
Furthermore, by combining your toolkit and operational readiness plans with emergency drills, you can take control of any situation to protect your workers, community and environment. For example, safety managers can review emission sources, chemical data, pre-defined worst-case scenarios and more to say, “if this chemical tank explodes today, what will happen?” With one click, safety personnel can factor in real-time weather data and see what the true worst-case scenario is in that moment, if and where a fire could occur, if a chain reaction is possible and much more.
By using these real-time tools, you can take the guesswork out of planning for and responding to a chemical release, allowing you to partner with first responders to make safe decisions with confidence, both inside your facility and in the communities surrounding it.