Although not a common occurrence, when a large-scale industrial incident does occur, there is the potential to cause significant damage and disruption to personnel, the general public and the facility.
The storage, transport and manufacture of chemicals brings with it an inherent element of risk. Chemicals can be corrosive or toxic or react explosively, with the potential for considerable impact on human life and the environment, and with many thousands of chemicals in commercial use worldwide, there is the ever present risk of accidental release.
Chemical spills and accidents can happen, on a small and large scale, anywhere chemicals are found - from factories, to oil rigs to tanker trucks, shipping vessels and railway transport - and can occur with surprising frequency.
Just a few recent examples of smaller industrial-related HazMat incidents in the US in 2017 (all of which were successfully contained) have included a mercury spill at the Cincinnati VA Medical Centre due to the movement of an old pipe during construction work; an ammonia leak at a Butterball plant in Jonesboro Arkansas after a power outage; a polyethylene holding tank catching fire at a chemical plant in Gales Ferry, Connecticut; and a chemical scare at Flint Hills Resources in Illinois.
There are clearly defined procedures and working practices in place within industrial facilities to help assess and manage risk, and individual sectors of industry within the US and UK are also subject to their own specific regulations.
The fact remains though that the hazardous nature of the processes involved in the handling or manufacture of chemicals, together with the ever-present potential for human error means it is essential that emergency response teams are equipped with the appropriate knowledge and skills to handle chemical incidents.
The ongoing challenge for HazMat instructors working within an industrial setting (or indeed any environment where there is a HazMat risk) is to devise training scenarios that provide an authentic live-incident experience for their trainees.
Traditional Hazmat safety training scenarios
Traditional approaches to HazMat safety training have typically relied on the use of classroom or field-based simulations in which trainees use actual detection instruments to locate small quantities of a live material.
While there is certainly value in being given the opportunity to handle real-life detectors, the simulant-based HazMat training method comes with some distinct limitations.
There is the potential for wear-and-tear of expensive detector instruments, there is the human and environmental risk associated with using live sources even in small quantities, there are health and safety regulations to comply with, and there is the not inconsiderable administrative effort required in ordering, transporting and storing the substances.
Another traditional training system involves the use of simple signs or handheld notes within a classroom setting or training area, or even simply telling the student what they “are now reading” which informs trainees as to the expected level of contamination at different locations.
While the use of printed signs and similar injects is an inexpensive training method, it does little to educate personnel in the correct use of their detectors or to equip them with an understanding of genuine readings or changes in measurements.
So if simulant-based training presents inherent risk and ‘make-believe’ scenarios lack authenticity, what other options exist for creating realistic training scenarios?
Intelligent simulation tools for HazMat safety training
One solution is the introduction of an intelligent computer-based simulation tool, such as the PlumeSIM-SMART, which can be used in a wide range of industrial scenarios to replicate the release of radiological, chemical and petrochemical gases, vapours or agents.
PlumeSIM-SMART is a software-driven system which runs on a standard laptop connected wirelessly to one or more handheld smart devices or mobiles (SMART-SIM.) The devices can then be used by students in any location and over a distance of up to 2,500 kilometres.
The virtual devices within each SMART-SIM can replicate multi-gas detection, air monitoring, radiological dose and dose rate meters. They also enable instructors to oversee each training scenario from a central location, and to influence the readings throughout each phase of an exercise. In addition, each student’s activity is automatically logged which means the instructor can review the time taken, the selected route, the information collected and how that information was communicated.
While there are rigorous controls across industry to prevent accidental release of toxic chemicals, the fact remains that emergency response teams need to be skilled and trained to respond to potential incidents on both a small and large scale.
Intelligent computer-based simulation tools, that enable crews to experience every element of a real life event, can play a vital role in ensuring they are prepared to handle any situation.