Tianjin Explosion – An Industrial Hygiene Perspective

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Photo Credit: Daily Press (http://www.dailypress.com/videogallery/dp-drone-footage-of-tianjin-explosion-20150813-premiumvideo.html)

It’s likely by now that you’ve read of the explosion which has devastated Tianjin, China (TIME Magazine, BBC,  CNN). The costly event provides industrial hygienists with ample opportunity to sharpen our skills.  If you were part of the company and called in to respond to the disaster, what would you need and what guidance could you provide? What are the most immediate types of information that would be asked of you?

  • There has been reports that it was unclear as to what exactly was being stored at the facility, and in what quantities. You would be relying on in-house protocols for documenting inventory and ideally would have the information stored in a manner that allows access at any time, from any location, such as a database on a remote server. You would also need to have applicable safety data sheets easily available such that the relevant information can be retrieved without delay.
  • If you were called upon to provide recommendations for respiratory protective equipment, what would you feel comfortable issuing? Do you rely on the highest order of protection and mobility, self-contained breathing apparatus, due to the unknowns present? Or can you confidently recommend a lower level of protection based on your knowledge of the facility?
  • It has come to light that the facility was storing large quantities of sodium cyanide, to be used in mining operations to assist with the extraction of metals from ore.  If you were asked by nearby residents and community members what the health effects associated with exposure to sodium cyanide are, what information can you provide? Again, this type of question reiterates the need to eliminate unknowns ahead of time and proactively plan for exposure scenarios, even if the focus is initially on workers rather than residents in the community.  Sodium cyanide releases hydrogen cyanide gas, which is highly toxic. Sodium cyanide can also affect the body through ingestion, inhalation, skin contact, or eye contact.  The potential health effects should be provided in the context of exposure dose and duration.
  • How will you know when it’s safe to re-enter the area without respiratory protection? Are you able to measure cyanide levels real-time, or how quickly can you collect samples and have the lab provide analysis?

What can you do to improve your skills as an IH following an event like Tianjin? The types of questions you’d likely encounter and be expected to respond to all have the common thread of being much easier to address and mitigate when you’ve adequately prepared and planned ahead of time.  Does your own facility have an emergency response plan? Can you recommend the necessary respiratory protective equipment required to prevent exposures and retrieve it quickly without putting someone in the line of fire? Do you have a checklist developed which can guide first-responders in a time of panic in order to reduce the likelihood of errors?

Have you ever been involved in a serious incident like this? Do you have insights you can share with the IH community? Let us know in the comments below.

August 23, 2015

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