Hazardous Materials Handling

Six workers were killed during a 2010 explosion at a natural gas energy facility under construction in Connecticut, and two workers were killed in a 2010 accident at a Kansas fertilizer plant.

For many businesses, potentially hazardous or combustible materials are basic building blocks that are used to create products, clean equipment or serve a variety of other productive uses.

But while these materials can help a business create substantial value, improper use or storage can lead to a range of accidents and other hazards.

Preventing industrial accidents requires using and storing potentially hazardous materials carefully, respectfully and, if proper care is taken, safely.

Understanding What You’re Using

One of the most important resources you’ll need to consult to learn the properties and potential hazards associated with each substance you’re using is its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). An MSDS will provide critical information to workers and safety personnel about a specific substance, including potential toxicity and health effects, as well as instructions for safe use and storage.

An MSDS will also provide information about a substance’s physical properties, such as its flashpoint, auto ignition temperature, vapor density and other characteristics.

To understand and reduce the potential risks, supervisors or managers should read and understand the MSDS for each material used or stored in your facility.

Depending on your jurisdiction, you may be required to make MSDSs available to employees, local fire departments and other emergency planning officials.

Responsible Storage

Once you understand the materials used in your workplace, another critical consideration is providing safe storage receptacles. Depending on the material, this may mean using specific cabinets or rooms to store flammable liquids, or, if your facility is large enough, confining flammable liquid use to outside buildings separated from other structures.

A flammable liquid storage cabinet, for instance, is designed to protect materials from fires outside the cabinet, and to reduce the leakage of flammable vapors into the general workplace.

Similarly, interior flammable liquid storage rooms typically have fire-rated walls and ceilings, and electrical wiring, lighting and other equipment designed for use in hazardous environments. Depending on the facility and materials being used, explosion venting or deflagration walls that help direct the pressure following an explosion may be called for.

Wherever potentially hazardous materials are used or stored, proper ventilation is critical. Ducts and filters should be cleaned and inspected regularly, and proper housekeeping procedures should be followed to reduce the risk of spontaneous combustion.

While you’re paying attention to the materials used in your business, be sure to also consider the pallets used in materials shipping or storage. Wooden or plastic pallets can represent an easily overlooked fire hazard of their own, if workers stack idle pallets in a remote corner of a warehouse or plant.

Not only can pallets provide additional fuel for nascent fires, a tall stack of pallets can block or redirect the water flow from sprinklers if a fire develops.

Similarly, storing materials waiting for use against emergency exit doors is a seemingly obvious hazard that too many companies overlook.

Paying attention to how potentially hazardous substances are handled, stored and used within your workplace, and following sensible safety practices, can help considerably in reducing the risks associated with the improper use and storage of these materials.

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Next: Industrial Combustion