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Introduction to HazMat training

Chemical spills and accidents can happen, on a small or large scale, anywhere that hazardous materials are found - from industrial sites and complexes to military bases, oil rigs, tanker trucks, shipping vessels, air transport hubs, trailway transport and medical treatment facilities.

Incidents can also occur in a domestic environment (as the result of a carbon monoxide leak or chemical suicide) or in a public environment, such as in the case of an acid attack.

Clandestine laboratories that manufacture drugs, explosives or toxic substances are another potential threat. As are environments where the oxygen level is dangerously low (such as within a confined space which can be hazardous for those without breathing apparatus) or where it is elevated and can lead to reduced ignition points.

The ability to respond effectively to the accidental or deliberate release of any hazardous substance relies on the knowledge and expertise of highly trained HazMat teams. This responsibility can fall to first responders (such as fire fighters, paramedics), law enforcement agencies or military personnel.

An ongoing challenge for anyone charged with HazMat instruction is to provide realistic, engaging and safe training scenarios that accurately reflect the nature of modern-day HazMat threats. 

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HazMat Safety Training eBook

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Defining HazMat

A HazMat substance is defined as any solid, powder, liquid or gas that (either on its own or through its interaction with other factors) poses a risk to people, organisms, the environment or physical property.

A HazMat incident may occur as a result of leaking, spillage, leaching, dumping or incorrect disposal, and may be accidental or deliberate in nature.

The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS) is an internationally agreed system that aims to unify the various HazMat classification and labelling methods used worldwide.

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The GHS divides hazardous materials into nine classes, based on their specific chemical characteristics:

  • Class 1: Explosives - including explosive hazards, projection hazards, and fire hazards (eg TNT, dynamite, nitroglycerin, fireworks, ammunition)
  • Class 2: Gases - including flammable, non-flammable and poisonous gases (eg acetylene, hydrogen, propane, nitrogen, neon, carbon dioxide, fluorine, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide)
  • Class 3: Flammable Liquids - divided into one of three Packing Groups based on their initial boiling point and absolute pressure (eg diethyl ether, gasoline, acetone, kerosene, diesel)
  • Class 4: Flammable Solids - including substances that are readily combustible, spontaneously combustible or dangerous when wet (eg nitrocellulose, magnesium, matches, aluminium alkyls, white phosphorous, sodium, calcium, potassium, calcium carbide)
  • Class 5: Oxidizing Agents/Organic Peroxides - eg calcium hypochlorite, ammonium nitrate, hydrogen peroxide, potassium permanganate, benzoyl peroxides, cumene hydroperoxide
  • Class 6: Toxic/Infectious - which are divided into poisons and biohazards (eg potassium cyanide, mercuric chloride, pesticides, methylene chloride, infectious biohazards, virus cultures, pathology specimens)
  • Class 7: Radioactive - comprising substance, or a combination of, which emit ionizing radiation (eg uranium, plutonium, cesium)
  • Class 8: Corrosive - including substances that dissolve organic tissue or severely corrode metal (eg sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, potassium hydroxide, sodium hydroxide)
  • Class 9: Miscellaneous Substances - comprising any substance which doesn’t fall into any of the above categories (eg, asbestos, dry ice) 

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HazMat vs CBRNe

While HazMat and CBRNe share certain similarities, there are some fundamental differences in terms of the focus and priorities of each approach.

HazMat incident response

    • Doesn’t (usually) deal with weaponized material
    • Involves single and readily identified hazards
    • Focuses on the mitigation of spills or leaks
    • Places priority on public and responder safety
    • Involves a high level of risk management
    • Is responsive in nature, with planning occurring at the scene
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CBRNe missions

  • Generally take place under battlefield conditions or as part of special intelligence operations (although they can also take place in public areas)
  • Deal with weaponized chemicals where a hazardous material is combined with a delivery mechanism (eg airburst shell, perfume bottle)
  • Often involve unknown or unidentified substances
  • Focus on the identification of the agent and the perpetrator through sampling and intelligence collection
  • Are mission-focused, often with the acceptance of a greater level of risk
  • Are often planned well in advance or arriving on scene

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HazMat Regulations

The most widely applied regulatory scheme applies to the transport of dangerous goods, as set out in the regulations of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and which forms the basis for the majority of regional, national and international regulations.

In the US, hazardous materials are defined and regulated by several bodies:

  • The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) - responsible for the regulation of hazardous materials that impact on the community and the environment
  • The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) - oversees the regulation of hazardous materials in the workplace as well as hazardous waste operations and emergency response
  • The US Department of Transportation (DOT) - regulates the transport or movement of hazardous materials within commerce in accordance with the US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)
  • In addition, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has developed dangerous goods regulations specific to the unique requirements of air transport; the International Maritime Organization has formulated the International Maritime Goods Code which forms part of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea; and the Intergovernmental Organization for International Carriage by Rail provides regulations that affect the transport of hazardous substances by rail.
  • The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) - responsible for regulating materials that emit ionizing radiation (including those that produce alpha particles, beta particles, x-rays, gamma rays and high-speed neutrons)
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In the UK, the transportation of hazardous goods is controlled by a variety of national and international regulatory bodies that collectively mandate the means by which hazardous goods are packaged, labelled, handled and transported.

Relevant UK regulatory bodies include:
  • The UN’s recommendations on the Transport of Dangerous Goods (contained in the UN model regulations)
  • The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)
  • The International Air Transport Organization (IATA) Dangerous Goods Regulations
  • The International Maritime Dangerous Goods Code (IMDG)
  • The European Agreement governing the International Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road (ADR)

UK manufacturers or importers of chemicals must comply with the European Regulation, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH).

The Dangerous Goods Emergency Action Code List (EAC) is the required compliance document for all UK emergency services responsible for planning and response to HazMat incidents.

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Transport of HazMat

Before any hazardous material can be shipped or moved, it must first be certified as being “safe to transport." This process involves verifying all paperwork, packaging, labelling or marking of hazardous materials and following the appropriate procedure for the correct loading, unloading, receiving or forwarding of items.

All substances that are deemed to be a HazMat risk must also be correctly packaged and labelled, according to their potential risk.

HazMat substances can typically be sorted into one of three packing groups:

  1. Packing Group I - indicating that there is a high degree of risk associated with the substance
  2. Packing Group II - indicating that the item presents a moderate degree of danger
  3. Packing Group III - indicating that the material is deemed to be hazardous but of low danger

Once a HazMat substance has been packaged, it must then be clearly labeled for transport, depending on the hazard category into which it falls.

The categories, which are clearly defined in the US code of federal regulations, cover everything from explosives, flammable gases and spontaneously combustible items to poisons, infectious substances, corrosives and radioactive materials.

In some cases, an item may be classified as having both a primary hazard and one (or more) secondary hazards, which are governed by specific labelling and packaging rules. 

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HazMat and Industry

Major industrial HazMat accidents are rare. However, with many thousands of chemicals in commercial use worldwide, there is the ever-present risk of accidental release.

And when a large-scale industrial incident does occur, there is the potential for considerable harm to personnel, the wider public and the environment.

The United States federal government receives an average of twelve reports of hazardous substance incidents every day. Most are discovered and reported by the company or individual responsible, which means that the nature and severity of the hazardous material are known from the outset.

In some cases, however, the HazMat risk may not become apparent until local law enforcement, first responders or military support units arrive on the scene.

In an incident in Cranston, Rhode Island, for example, twelve firefighters were hospitalised for suspected cyanide poisoning after attending a chemical fire at an industrial facility that stored twenty-five different types of chemical including cyanide and sulfuric acid.

The vital importance of HazMat emergency preparedness was also highlighted in Crosby, Texas, in 2017 when floodwaters caused a power shutdown and a series of explosions at a chemical plant. The hazardous smoke plume that ensued resulted in a 1.5-mile exclusion zone being placed around the plant.

Other industrial-related HazMat incidents in the US 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; a polyethylene holding tank catching fire at a chemical plant in Gales Ferry, Connecticut; and a chemical scare at Flint Hills Resources in Illinois.

Toxic plumes have the potential to drift significant distances, as was evidenced in January 2013, when a foul-smelling gas cloud that originated in Rouen, France, prompted thousands of calls to the emergency services all across South Coast of the United Kingdom.

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HazMat and the Military

The armed forces make use of a wide range of hazardous substances as part of national defense missions, including petroleum products, chemicals, explosives and solvents.

All military branches are required to train and certify relevant personnel, both uniformed and civilian, in understanding the safe storing, transport and use of of HazMat items.

Any military employee whose duties involve HazMat must complete certification training specific to their duties and which can comprise a combination of classroom-based and web-based learning.

The US army for example, offers certification in Ammo-67-DL HazMat Familiarization and Safety in Transportation which provides an overview of essential HazMat requirements including vehicle inspection, the Joint Hazard Classification System (JHCS), emergency response and certifying HazMat materials for safe transport.

The US navy provides several Hazardous Control and Management (HC&M) Technician certifications for enlisted navy personnel who have responsibility for handling, storing, transporting or disposing of hazardous materials.

Within the UK Ministry of Defence, Army Communications Transport Specialists are required to gain a hazardous materials carriage license.

Similarly within the Royal Air Force (RAF) those responsible for the transport of hazardous materials must adhere to European Accord Dangareux Routier (ADR) regulations concerning the international carriage of dangerous goods by road.

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HazMat Training Methods

There is a strong argument for providing first responders with exposure to realistic and engaging hands-on learning experiences that prepare them for a wide variety of HazMat threats.

Structured web-based or classroom teaching should ideally be supported by access to realistic, practical, live-incident training to ensure that HazMat teams are confident in the safe handling of hazardous substances and in the correct protocols to follow in the event of a release.

Traditional HazMat safety training methods often comprise classroom or field-based exercises – typically with small quantities of live materials or check sources - which trainees then need to locate using conventional detection instruments. While there is value in being given the opportunity to handle real-life detectors, simulant-based HazMat training methods have some inherent limitations.

Using real detectors in training exercises requires taking them out of service for the exercise, potentially requiring their decontamination and maintenance should the equipment be damaged.

The use of live check sources, even in limited quantities, can also present considerable risk to trainees and their instructors, so there is the need to comply with health, safety and environmental regulations.

It’s also important to bear in mind the considerable cost and administrative effort required order, transport and store the substances.

At the other end of the scale, the use of printed signs around the training area, while an inexpensive training method, does little in practice to help trainees understand the correct use of detection equipment and to enable them to determine the best methods of interpreting readings under different operating conditions.

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Features of effective HazMat Training

Realism

Realistic and engaging HazMat training scenarios are an essential contributor to effective and long-lasting learning.

While the detector equipment used in live incidents is often fairly simple to use, the key is in creating life-like scenarios that facilitate an instrument’s actual readings and responses to ensure they are understood and the associated decision making is practiced.

Authenticity is crucial, both in terms of the look, feel and response of the detector and the physical and environmental challenges that the scenario is setting out to recreate.

Repeatability

The process of ordering, storing, transporting and handling radiological sources and chemicals and gases for detection training scenarios requires administration, time and effort that may be better spent in delivering authentic and high-quality training.

It’s important to be able to train as often, and as diversely, as is required, including the staging of multiple and unlimited scenarios that can be carried out in a variety of locations.

The resetting of equipment, essential decontamination procedures, special permissions, regulatory administration, or the clean-up time between exercises can all cause delays which impact on the success of HazMat training.

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Feedback

When training for HazMat threats, understanding where things have gone wrong can be just as important as knowing when things have gone right.

The use of any HazMat or CBRNe detector requires a trainee to follow a clear set of procedures.

So being able to obtain information on how accurately a trainee has adhered to this process is a key element of the learning experience. If a crucial step has been missed, it’s important to be able to record any errors for review after the exercise.

Safety

The aim of any HazMat training exercise should be to create as realistic a scenario as possible, whilst causing with physical or environmental impact.

The use of simulant chemicals or vapours in open-air testing, for example, can saturate the training environment and pose serious potential health and safety risks.

So any training outdoors that involves simulants or live sources needs to be carefully controlled - from the time of day it is conducted, to the appropriate weather conditions and the quantity of agent being released.

Cost

The value for money of HazMat training scenarios should take into account the lifetime cost of ownership of the selected training method.

Ongoing maintenance and servicing of devices comes at a cost, as does acquiring, transporting and handling sources, chemicals or gases and ultimately site remediation.

It’s also important to consider the effect that the use of any simulant agent may have on expensive detector equipment over time.

Minimizing the wear and tear on devices also ensures that operational readiness is maintained.

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A comparision of HazMat training methods

In this chapter we explore the features, advantages and limitations of three HazMat training methods:

  • Live Agent Training (LAT)
  • Simulant Agent Training (SAT)
  • Simulator Training

Live-Agent Training (LAT)

Live Agent Training (LAT) is widely considered to be the pinnacle of hazmat training for the military first responders because it utilizes small quantities of live biological and chemical sources to create realistic, hands-on training scenarios.

But while LAT can provide an invaluable opportunity to experience life-like hazmat emergencies in the field, it can also be time-intensive and costly to implement and requires strict adherence to environmental / health and safety regulations.

The highly specialised nature of such training also means that LAT can often only be undertaken once a trainee has demonstrated an advanced understanding and proficiency in the detection, identification and decontamination of hazardous materials.

Safety when dealing with any live chemical or biological agent is paramount so LAT can only be undertaken in specially designated LAT centers.

Simulant Agent Training (SAT)

Simulant agent training is in many respects not too far removed from LAT, as it involves the use of chemical substances that mimic the properties and behaviour of live sources.

But while simulant agent training offers a high degree of realism it does also have its shortcomings.

One of the biggest challenges faced by HazMat instructors is the necessity for environmental safety. Simulants can be difficult to dispense and control in open air scenarios for example, and large-area dissemination is generally not encouraged.

Even when dispersal is permitted, environmental factors such as wind, air temperature and saturation within the training location can significantly impede the learning experience.

Many chemical simulants are not easily biodegradable, so the repeated use of simulants in any one specific area can lead to a build up of toxicity over time, with the potential to become a significant hazard both to the environment and to human health.

The very small quantities that are often used can also limit scenario options, which can adversely impact upon the overall learning experience.

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Simulation Training

Simulation training incorporates the use of intelligent, computer-based simulation tools that accurately replicate how real devices react when exposed to a range of chemical substances.

Simulator training also incorporates the use of realistic replica detectors which means it serves as an invaluable training ground in preparing students for the unique challenges of LAT. The key difference though is that no chemical or live agent is required.

Unlike LAT, which has stringent regulatory controls, simulator training can be undertaken anywhere, including public buildings and civilian locations.

Larger training areas can also be quickly set up without any requirement for adherence to environmental regulations.

Because simulator detectors have been designed to respond to safe electronic sources, they are especially useful in the carrying out of Hazmat, and in particular radiation safety training exercises.

Simulator radiation detectors for example, provide radiological incident instructors with the tools to safely teach search, reconnaissance, survey and location skills, as well as providing a hands- on understanding of isodoserate mapping, safe demarcation and shielding.

Crucially though, because no live substances are used, there are no environmental or health and safety implications.

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HazMat Training with Simulators

The use of simulator detector instruments enables industrial, military personnel and first responders to experience realistic and compelling training scenarios of the highest possible standard.

An alternative to the more traditional methods of HazMat incident training is to use an intelligent computer based simulation tool.

PlumeSIM-SMART

The software-based PlumeSIM-SMART system has been specially designed for use in a wide range of industrial scenarios, including the release of radiological, chemical and petrochemical gases, vapors and agents.

PlumeSIM-SMART runs on a standard laptop that connects wirelessly to one or more handheld smart devices or mobiles (SMART-SIM) and that simulates real-life detection instruments by means of an installed software application. Students can then work in a designated training location which can be up to 2,500km in area.

The system enables instructors to create, run and optimise each training exercise from a central point. It also provides them with the ability to influence the readings that their students obtain across the training area and throughout each phase of the exercise.

Each student is able to see a customised display on their personal SMART-SIM, which automatically updates, in real time, to reflect their individual movement and location and the effect of changing wind and weather conditions.

The route and actions taken by each student are also automatically logged, which allows the instructor to review the choice of survey route, the time taken, the information collected and the decisions made.

Tabletop exercises, which are ideal for command officer and management training are also readily implemented and can provide a cost effective practice run for field exercises.

Computer-based simulation tools such as PlumeSIM-SMART offer an extremely effective extension to existing safety management programmes by providing a realistic dimension to training scenarios that ensures trainees are confident, and competent, in responding to a wide range of potential HazMat threats.

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PPE

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) apparatus provides essential protection in the event of chemical emergency incidents. However its use also presents some inherent challenges for trainees:

  • Restriction of movement due to the weight of the equipment
  • Restriction of vision due to visual field limitations
  • Problems with communication (which can be partially overcome by the use of 2-way radios)
  • Ergonomic challenges that can affect the operating, reading and interpreting certain detection instruments
  • The risk of overheating or dehydration
  • Psychological stressors due to the confining nature of the full suits

Crucially too, the equipment that offers the most highly protective form of protection, such as that used in Chemical Emergency Response, can only be worn for a few minutes at a time.

Because of the physiological and psychological stressors associated with the use of PPE, it’s also essential to conduct a medical monitoring program of the participants to record weight, vital signs, recent medical history, hydration and appropriate decontamination at the conclusion of the incident.

Training programs are also essential for HazMat teams to ensure they understand how to don the equipment, how to maintain and decontaminate it, how to recognize when the equipment has been compromised (due to tears in the suit for example) and when it is necessary to dispose of the apparatus.

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