The Health and Safety of Spills
Despite the often significant environmental impact of spills, thought is rarely given to risks assumed by cleanup operators. Reuben Richings, group technical manager at Adler and Allan, provides insight into how the environmental consultancy safeguards employees and clients.
We are often called on to contain, treat and clean up a wide variety of breaches and leakages. These range from hydraulic fluids and paints, that require a mechanical response, to road cleaning and removal of waste using tankers all the way through to major incident spills, such as high-volume oil or chemical breaches, which demand large scale protection and restoration of entire ecosystems.
With the majority of these representing a potential hazard to the environment, it follows they may also compromise human health and safety. Toxic substances may cause either short-term irritation or longer-lasting conditions, such as occupational asthma, or even instant death if certain chemicals are not handled correctly.
Containment, clean-up and disposal
Whilst no operation is ever 'mundane' or routine, most responses involve three key areas which are centred around containment, clean-up and disposal of substances that, once dealt with properly and quickly, will limit damage to ecologies the environment and human health. Forearmed with the full picture of what we will be getting to grips with, we ensure that all appropriate safety equipment and clothing is employed by anyone going near it and the risks to human wellbeing are generally low.
However, no two jobs are ever the same, and we must always be prepared for the unexpected and unknown.
Ostensibly, a tanker rollover, say, that is leaking the same substance as last time is just like the previous incident. However, the many variables at play make for a unique set of circumstances each and every time a roll over may occur.
Such variables may include the size of the stricken vehicle, its angling, whether it is lying on a road, soil or a water course. The amount leaked, and the surrounding environment, the time of day therefore the time scale pressure impact on the public and logistics of our own assets, the temperature and weather conditions and whether there are services like overhead lines of gas mains nearby are just some of the variables
All of these, and more, must be factored in to get the job done as quickly, safely and effectively as the last time.
All our work areas are dangerous due to the nature of our work locations; these include construction sites, power stations, rail side and airside, petrol station forecourts, terminals, refineries, chemical plants, and Ports and Harbours. All of these environments are high risk, which include unstable structures, high voltage cabling and transformers, flammable poisonous and corrosive atmospheres, working at height, confined space and fast flowing or deep water to name only a few.
With over 500 customers there is always something different or unique, including the health and safety requirements we must comply with fully. Client organisations and entire sectors often also exceed statutory requirements with their own strict rules which we must also adhere to.
With this in mind, between them, our staff have to be fully knowledgeable of all best practice and legislation for every customer and each of their industries and our specialist services.
Training and certification
Our talent pool must attain the safety passports and/or additional formal qualifications that are needed to be able to set foot on these sites and operate in such environments – for example Rail Track Safety training, Construction Industry Standard certificates and port and harbour management diplomas which cover boat and equipment handling all demonstrate a high level of competency which is required to operate safely.
There are dozens of courses and certificates to satisfy every customer, and for the vital and specialised work we perform, some sectors routinely demand the completion of additional, client-specific ones (for example, the "Passport" schemes operated by oil majors, Esso and Shell).
Another example is the marine sector where we have already satisfied UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) requirements that come into effect in November for the accreditation of response organisations to advanced Tier 2 oil spill responder criteria under the International Spill Accreditation Scheme (ISAS).
As individual Port Authorities often have additional induction requirements, this all calls for a learning and development programme that is extremely broad, flexible and multi-disciplinary in its spectrum.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Our personal protective equipment (PPE) is designed for operation in many different settings, and must fulfil a huge array of varying functions. While it’s unlikely any individual technician will make full use of their kit, ensuring all employees are properly protected in any potential environment benefits everyone.
Ensuring we can match any clients’ safety wear colour requirements and permutations also gives us an advantage when compiling risk assessment method statements (RAMS) at short notice.
We run regular callout exercises with our major clients to test their protocols and practical physical deployment. Training exercises are also organised with all our marine response customers as part of the sector's regulatory and legal requirements. These ensure the safety demands of each call-out are met in a more complex, pressurised situation than personnel might otherwise encounter.
Exercises also allow us to pre-compile standard RAMS for every customer which anticipate all possible incidents and how they should be tackled, as well as the precautions that must be taken in general terms. Upon a call-out, these are refined and added to speedily with pre-work risk assessments assessed and completed by the emergency response operators and the client, who factor in and build on the particular, unique circumstances at play on the ground – adding that vital ten per cent to the 90 per cent already laid down. This is essential as no set of RAMS could be completed without specific on-site knowledge and cooperation with the client in such a dynamic and fluid situation as an emergency response
The skills and capabilities our people are armed with give them the confidence to communicate with customers what they need to know and challenge established procedures. We want them to be educated enough always to question and expand on what they’re told.
For instance, if a generic gas monitor is being used that only detects methane in a propane outage, or if a piece of equipment is likely to be an ignition source in a flammable atmosphere, these serious hazards will be pointed out and challenged.
Despite any rules demanding that only a specific piece of equipment or method is used, if such equipment and methods may present additional hazards and risks in an emergency response situation, our specialist response teams will address this with the client so that a suitable alternative and/or method can be utilised.
Operators and end users may be experts in what they do, and their operations may well conform to industry standards. However, it is our job to ensure all parties are always safe, and not blindly walking into danger during an emergency response situation. To this end, we ensure all machinery and safety equipment is always entirely appropriate to the environment it will be deployed in.
By now it should be clear environmental response operations require multi-functional rather than generic expertise which has led us to develop bespoke software that can instantly show the training and time spent by our employees on different kinds of job recently.
For, as with the the requirement for commercial pilots to undertake a certain number of flying hours annually to retain licences, spill response professionals, as well as their employers, must maintain levels of competency to serve clients from different sectors without compromise.