Neglect is not worth the risk

A range of legislation affects health and safety in the water industry. Geoff Hooke, secretary general to the British Safety Industry Federation reminds employers where to direct their attention

There is a natural tendency during a recession to try and save costs by carefully evaluating every aspect of activity so that non-essential spending can be eliminated. The British Safety Industry Federation (BSIF), like every other responsible safety industry organisation, is urging companies to make a positive decision not to compromise on health and safety in an attempt to save a few pounds.

The new Health & Safety (Offences) Act was passed last year and has just come into force. The costs, downtime, disruption and increased insurance premiums associated with accidents and injuries should be incentive enough to ensure adequate attention to health and safety, without the increased threat of higher fines and the possibility of custodial sentences. Nevertheless, if this more robust regime strengthens the attention of company directors towards the welfare of their workers, it has the full support of the BSIF.

When dealing with water and wastewater issues there are several specific hazards that come to mind. Probably the most important is that water is a unique solvent and it tends to be easily contaminated with a wide range of chemicals.

This in itself creates two major problems. Initially, everyone is aware of the requirement to deal with any leaks or spills with general safety and environmental protection very much in mind. Often overlooked is the obligation to protect anyone who is likely to come into contact with contaminated liquids or is responsible for handling emergency leaks and spills.

Risk assessment is a crucial step in protecting employees and the vital aspect of this is to identify and prioritise those that could seriously affect the health and safety of workplace personnel and potentially cause real harm or injury. What is not often realised is that whatever external advice and guidance is sought and however an employee might contribute to an accident, the responsibility clearly rests with the company that owns the site through the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations and the employer through the Health & Safety at Work Regulations.

These responsibilities cannot be delegated and the courts will not accept pleas of mitigation.

Whilst it is a legal requirement for companies to carry out a risk assessment, the process does not need to be onerous. Everyone, including Health & Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors, simply expect that all significant hazards are identified and that "reasonably practicable" steps are taken to minimise the risks generated.

Ideally, this is achieved by engineering out the hazard. However, in the case of liquids, there is always the need to deal with leaks, spills and other emergencies, not to mention the handling of contaminated components and tools. When eliminating these hazards is not viable, or is uneconomic, it will probably be necessary to deploy personal protective equipment [PPE] and other specialist safety equipment. This will bring with it other responsibilities as it will be vital to ensure that staff are aware of what the PPE will do, how to wear and use it, how to maintain it and its limitations.

The regulations make it clear that responsibility for selecting suitable PPE and safety equipment rests with the employer. Pan-industry research carried out by consultancy Bomel, on behalf of the HSE, showed that over a ten-year period, 63% of Reporting of Injuries, Diseases & Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) reports, which specifically mentioned PPE were as a result of deployment of unsuitable PPE, poor maintenance and inadequate training. Interestingly, not a single one of these reports stated that the PPE had failed to perform as stated. Another, more recent research identified that many managers responsible for staff safety, including some safety specialists, did not know what the various markings on safety products, including the CE Mark, actually meant.

It is important that there is an understanding that the CE Mark only verifies that the PPE "does what it says on the tin". It does not confirm that the product will do what you want it to do! So it is back to the risk assessment, which will identify the hazards.

Any BSIF manufacturer or safety distributor will be able to match these hazards to an appropriate and suitable product; procurers should look for the BSIF members company logo. Any safety manager should be able to do this anyway as all PPE will carry details of the standards and classes against which these products have been tested to gain their right to use the CE Marks.

It is then a simple matter of matching the product performances against the hazards identified. All PPE must have user information available at the point of sale or with the product. A little time spent in reading it will provide a wealth of relevant information.

Because of this general lack of awareness of how to 'read' what equipment will do, there have been many recorded incidents. One safety officer recommended the deployment of vented goggles when noxious vapours were being generated and another issued gloves to prevent liquid contact, which had poor cut resistance when 'sharps' were present.

This lack of knowledge and understanding, without any attempt to find out, the adoption of a trial and error approach, or a selection process based purely on cost, are all totally irresponsible. Any penalties imposed by the courts when these bad practices come to light are fully deserved. Unfortunately, this is often to the detriment of somebody whose life will never be the same again.

The Oil Storage Regulations recognise the need for handling emergencies, leaks and spills, and require organisations involved in the storage of oils to have written emergency procedures. It is to be hoped that, one day, the principles of these regulations will be applied to all organisations storing, processing or handling potentially hazardous liquids.

Within the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regulations there is no requirement for a written emergency procedure. It may be implied, but it is not stated.

Also, there is no obligation on material suppliers to provide specific information within their material data sheets on the types of safety equipment to use. For example, they may say "use a respirator", without specifying which type. Or they may say that sorbents that are effective when dealing with leaks and spills, but unless carefully selected, the "throw sand on it" approach might spread the hazard.

This is supposed to be within the scope of REACH, the European Community regulation on chemicals and their safe use. The new law entered into force on 1 June 2007, but the transition period is through to 2018 and nobody wants to address this problem. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the Environment Agency and the HSE will prosecute if the environment or people are harmed.

Having dealt with the PPE selection, it is important that everyone dealing with the likelihood of liquid spills fully understands that there are several types of sorbents. These range from basic products to high performance sorbents for use with chemicals and oil specific sorbents for use with hydrocarbons and fuels when water is present.

In conjunction with the Environment Agency, the specialist Sorbent Manufacturers group within the BSIF has created a sorbent selection guide, free on request, and self-regulated the use of BS 7959 for performance testing. This performance issue is important as different sorbents work most efficiently with different types of liquid and manufacturers were, quite naturally, claiming performance against the most favourable challenge materials.

Depending on the type of sorbent material and its chemical properties, it is a fact that some work more effectively with viscous liquids and other with lighter fuels and chemicals. Unless manufacturers use BS 7959 to test the performance, this will present a confused message to everyone responsible for selecting sorbents. And because these products are not regulated, very little can be done until a company is embarrassed by having insufficient sorbent available to deal with a spill, by which time it is too late.

By using BS 7959, the performances are based on standardised criteria and it is easier for those needing to have products available to better evaluate the quantity they require. This will provide a better chance of ensuring that there will be enough sorbent on-site to deal with predicted spills. Members of the BSIF Sorbent Manufacturers group all use BS 7959 to evaluate performances, are able to advise on the most suitable product for use with specific liquids and can train first-responders to liquid spills through BSIF quality assured courses.

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