A couple of years ago we conducted an emergency exercise on site where we simulated a chlorine gas leak. Chlorine is a toxic gas that is widely used for water treatment across a number of industries. When a leak occurs it is important to notify all site occupants and also direct them to a safe assembly area or evacuation point. In an open site like ours, this safe area may be different to the standard safe areas in the evacuation plan given the fact that the wind can direct the toxic gas plume in any direction. We have a windsock located on the chlorine building so the emergency coordinators can determine the safe areas on site.
We had recently reviewed our emergency response procedure for such incidents and we had come up with some standard wording to be broadcast three times using the radio system on site.
It went like this:
ATENTION ATENTION: UNCONTROLLED CHLORINE LEAK ON SITE
REPEAT: UNCONTROLLED CHLORINE LEAK ON SITE
WIND DIRECTION IS __________ TO __________
STAY UPWIND FROM CHLORINE BUILDING
SAFE EVACUATION GATE IS __________
SECURITY GUARD: PREVENT ACCESS TO SITE.
IF CAUGHT IN CHLORINE ATMOSPHERE STAND UPRIGHT, SHALLOW BREATH AND WALK ACCROSS WIND AND THEN UPWIND. DO NOT RUN.
PEOPLE NEAR THE CHLORINE BUILDING: MOVE ACCROSS WIND AND UPWIND.
IF TRAPPED INDOORS TURN OFF AIR CONDITIONING, SHUT DOORS AND WINDOWS AND SEAL GAPS WITH CLOTHS.
REPEAT: WIND DIRECTION IS __________ TO __________
I must admit that we were quite confident that the message was clear enough. It was in plain English and should be effective in giving instructions.
After the exercise was finished we had a de-briefing session. Here are some of the comments that we received back from our employees and contractors who were on site at the time:
- ‘I could not understand what was being said. That guy on the two-way radio has such a strong accent.’
- ‘The message is wrong, it should say downwind, not upwind.’
- ‘I didn’t know where the chlorine building was.’
At that moment I felt like the exercise had gone reasonably well and these comments were something inherent to managing an emergency on our site.
On the first point, we have ten different nationalities on site and it is true that some people have strong accents, also some others do not understand English so well that they can pick up all what is said over the radio (consider a noisy environment with noisy radio reception too). How do you fix that?
On the second point, notwithstanding the fact that the original message was correct –you are to stay upwind in case of a gas leak, not downwind- reality is that person was not understanding the meaning. Also note that it was a native English speaker who made this remark. What can you do really?
About the third point it is fair to say that even if you regularly induct and refresh induction to all contractors, a large site like ours has a number of areas that are not regularly visited by all contractor and therefore I think it is fair to expect these type of gaps. How can you improve this in a practical manner?
Needless to say, EVA’s features would have alleviated some of these issues. We are planning to repeat this exercise this year, it will be interesting to see to what extent communication is improved by the use of EVA. I’ll keep you posted.