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May 31, 2013
Lessons from West, Texas: What you can do to prepare for and prevent disasters

Over a month after the tragedy in West, Texas, investigators have detailed the sequence of events during the fire and subsequent explosion. At a press conference on May 16, officials from agencies involved in the investigation, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) and the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office, discussed the timeline that evening. Here’s what happened:

  • A fire began in the seed room of the fertilizer and seed building. The fire was reported at 7:29 p.m. on April 17.
  • Firefighters arrived at the scene 9 minutes later, at 7:38 p.m.
  • At 7:41 p.m., the responders at the scene requested backup.
  • The fire continued to burn for 22 minutes. It raised the temperature of ammonium nitrate stored in the building, making a portion of it unstable and thus more likely to explode.
  • When debris from the collapsing building landed on the ammonium nitrate bin, a portion of the substance exploded.
  • The first explosion triggered another explosion milliseconds later, for a total amount of exploded ammonium nitrate between 28 and 34 tons.

What officials haven’t determined, however, is the trigger for the initial fire. There are three causes that the investigation wasn’t able to eliminate:

  • A battery-powered golf cart stored inside the seed room;
  • The facility’s 120-volt electrical system; or
  • An intentionally set fire.

The criminal investigation will continue, and questions and speculation about what went wrong at the West Fertilizer Company (West Fertilizer) will likely persist for some time. There’s a chance that the true cause of the fire will never be known.

Regardless of whether the disaster was accidental or deliberate, there are valuable lessons to be learned. Despite all the uncertainty, employers everywhere should consider the event’s implications for workplace safety, accident prevention, and emergency preparedness. We may never know exactly what happened in West, Texas, but all employers can benefit from reviewing their safety systems to pinpoint problems before they become disasters.

Emergency preparation: Important for all

It’s important to remember that when it comes to emergencies, no one is immune. Even if your business is in a low-risk industry, factors beyond your control can disrupt your operations. The most obvious example of this is a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, but that’s not the only type of event employers should prepare for. For example, consider the businesses located near the site of the Boston Marathon bombings, or those in proximity to West Fertilizer. In both cases, those employers experienced major disruptions that were entirely outside their control. But with a little planning, you can make sure events like these don’t entirely derail your operations.

An Emergency Action Plan (EAP) is a written plan designed to facilitate and organize employee actions during an emergency. It covers issues such as evacuation strategies, fire extinguisher use, and any other actions a business may need to take to ensure the safety and security of its facility and employees. OSHA requires EAPs for most workplaces, but you should develop one even if you aren’t required to do so.

Many of the situations covered by an EAP aren’t under an employer’s control. But emergencies are, by definition, worst-case scenarios, and considering all the variables involved in these situations can spur employers to examine whether their safety systems will hold up and take steps to improve them if necessary.

For example, a company that stores hazardous chemicals may not consider toxic release a likely scenario under ordinary circumstances. But by creating an EAP, that company is forced to think about what could happen in the event of a fire, for instance. Considering the extreme situations can help employers pinpoint weak spots in a safety system and correct problems before they become disasters.

And there’s another important benefit to having a comprehensive EAP: It minimizes the potential for injuries during unexpected situations. Having a plan in place—and reviewing it with your employees—helps to avoid the chaos during an emergency that can lead to a variety of hazards, from falls during a rush to exit a facility to stress-induced panic attacks.

The following are some important factors to consider when developing your emergency response strategy:

  • Evacuation procedures: Under what circumstances will you direct employees to evacuate? What location will you direct them to after exiting the building? How will you account for all employees to make sure everyone got out safely?
  • Exit routes: Are your employees familiar with all of the exits in your facility? Can they locate the closest one quickly? How will you make sure everyone isn’t rushing to the same door?
  • Fire extinguisher use: In the event of a fire, will one or more employees be directed to use a fire extinguisher rather than evacuating? How will you select these employees and provide appropriate training?
  • Hazardous materials: Does your facility contain any chemicals or other hazardous substances that need to be secured before evacuation? How will you do this?
  • Hazardous energy: Are there any energy sources that must be controlled and/or shut down prior to exit, such as machinery or electrical systems? Who will be responsible for this?
  • Provisions for employees with disabilities: How will you help them to evacuate if necessary? How will you identify employees who will need assistance during emergencies?
  • Communication: How and when will you communicate with employees during an emergency? What information sources should they rely on following an evacuation to know when it is safe to return or what other steps to take?
  • Medical treatment: Is emergency medical treatment available within 3 to 4 minutes of your business? If not, who will be trained to administer first aid if necessary?

If you develop an EAP that addresses all of the above issues, you’ll be well on your way to keeping your employees safe when worst-case-scenario events occur.

Check out Part 2 of this article, where we talk about proactive accident prevention strategies that you can implement in your workplace to prevent and prepare for disasters.

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