Category Archives: Health & Safety

You Might Be an Industrial Hygienist if…

…you know what fart rock is and why it’s called that (and you’ve used it for training)

…you know how to hang a 2-pound sample pump on a lady wearing spandex pants

…you know what a pump jockey is

…you’ve ever been a pump jockey

…you know how to make a belt with duct tape

…you’ve ever eaten lunch from a vending machine (because you can’t leave the plant)

…you know why the glass in a microwave oven door is not necessary

…you get a charge out of running towards the chemical spill

…you’ve ever bought soap bubbles to use at work

…you know what 85 decibels sounds like without using a meter

…you know what Q=VA means

…you’ve ever told a chemist his burette was upside down

…you’ve ever bought 9-volt batteries in bulk

…you carry ear plugs in your pocket (just in case)

…you wonder what happens to the fines from a Dyson cyclone vacuum

…you wish you had that “black box” analyzer they use on CSI (and you know why you never will)

…you know what isoamyl acetate smells like (and like it)


What I Really Do

What I Really Do

Crude Distillation

In my world, “crude distillation” generally means distilling crude oil into the stuff that quenches the national thirst for gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and building blocks for plastic (and a few other things).  This video posted at CNN however gives a whole new meaning to “crude” distillation.  You really should go watch it, then come back and read the rest of this post.

I’ll wait…

You back?

So I find it very tempting to want to use this as an opportunity to tell a few people that the problems/issues we have are really nothing to worry about when you consider the plight of others in the world.  If you look at the oil slicks on the water in this video, why in the world would you think we need to spend resources on cleaning up anymore of the oil in the Gulf of Mexico?  Send those resources to Nigeria.  Why in the world are you concerned about whether you’ll get a new iThingy for your birthday?  These guys might not even get lunch for a few days – IF they live until lunchtime.  Really – what ARE you worried about?

I know that’s neither a politically correct nor a practical answer.  The safety and health of our own environment is not predicated on the safety and health of others.  It’s not okay to put a few people at risk over here just because the working conditions somewhere else are worse.  Which is what really bothers me here.  The people in this video – they may or may not have a clue about safe operating procedures, and they most certainly recognize the risks of what they are doing (they know others who have died doing this).  And they almost certainly believe that this is what they MUST do in order to survive (if indeed they do survive the day).  It makes my heart heavy to know that as hard as I try to create safe and healthy workplaces for my peers, and I try to help them understand that they do NOT have to sacrifice their health to make a living, there are places in the world where people do, in fact, have to sacrifice their health – even their lives – to barely make enough money to buy food for their families.

Say a prayer today for these people, and all the children working in factories in India, and migrant workers who are treated like sub-human slaves, and…the list goes on.

Other People’s Mistakes

I have always been grateful that I could learn from other people’s mistakes.

Take for instance, seat belts.  I have seen the results of other people not wearing seat belts – either being thrown from the vehicle, or being thrown around inside the vehicle.  Based on this observation, I’ve learned to wear a seat belt in the car – I do not need to personally experience the effects of not wearing a seat belt.

I’ve seen people lose their jobs for stealing tools, stealing time, stealing money, and drinking on the job.  I do not need to personally experiment with these activities to understand the consequences.

Since you all have so graciously endowed me with your mistakes, it seems only fair that I share mine with you.  So sit up and take notes.  This could come in handy some day.

If you have one of those fold-down ladders leading to your attic, you should not attempt to repair it yourself.  Several years ago I did that.  Once I had the two bottom sections taken off, I was working on the upper section when I had all the hardware taken apart, and realized I was holding the spring-loaded mechanism in my hand and that when I let go, all that spring-loaded energy was going somewhere, and I didn’t know where.  While contemplating my predicament, the bar slipped out of my hand.  The bar swung around and unloaded all the energy just above my eye – all I got was small cut, but could have lost an eye.  You don’t need to do that – just hire a carpenter (like I did the next day).

Next time you put your laptop bag in the back of your pickup truck, don’t drive through the car wash.  Fortunately, if you have one that has thick “plastic” ballistic canvas, like me, the laptop may not get soaked, but you will have a panic-attack before you can get out of the car wash and check on it (like I did).

Round-Up Wave

And finally, if you use a pressurized sprayer for applying Round-Up to the weeds in your yard, make sure the sprayer does not have a tiny pin-hole leak in it BEFORE you walk across the lawn with it.  On the other hand, if you consider the wavy brown stripe across the front-lawn as art, it doesn’t really look that bad.

So, there you go.  You have the opportunity to learn the easy way.  Oh – that reminds me – don’t park in the corner space.  Especially where buses/shuttles drive through the parking lot – they tend to clip the corner of cars without stopping.  (I also learned this the easy way – riding in the shuttle that clipped someone else’s car.)

It’s Not What You Think

I thought I saw a news item that said today was the anniversary of the debut of color television.  Searching the internet tells me otherwise (appears the debut was in March, not June).  Anyway, it got me thinking.

When color TV’s started rolling off the assembly line, you’d think they would have swept the nation by storm.  You would have seen people camping out at Western Auto stores two or three days early just to get one.  Not so, according to NPR.  Because there was very little programming in color, it took more than 10 years for color TV’s “to become a household fixture.” I’d say even longer than that.  I clearly remember the first time I saw color TV – watching the Rose Parade at Aunt Doris’ house in Kansas. Not only was it in color, but the ROSE PARADE – an EXPLOSION of color. I don’t remember the date, but I know I was around 10 years old, so it had to be in the early ’70s. Oh, and I guess that camping out thing is a recent development.

Here are a few other “statistics” that might surprise you:

  • Only 2 billion people in the world have internet access (there are nearly 7 billion people in the world).
  • Only 1.2 billion people have telephones (yeah, more people have internet access than telephones).
  • There are an estimated 4 billion cell phones (I wonder how many of those are in landfills, or the sewer system?).
  • The greatest percentage of injuries at work happen early in the shift – not at the end of the shift or late at night when you think people would be getting tired and sleepy (Bureau of Labor Statistics).
  • If the Baton Rouge Area OSHA office inspected EVERY workplace in Louisiana that was subject to OSHA regulation, it would take over 190 years to visit all of them (because they don’t have enough staff).
  • The average penalty for a violation of OSHA regulations is $1000.
  • The Protecting America’s Workers Act would raise the maximum penalty for safety violations from $70,000 to $250,000 (What?  You thought it was already more than that? You might have confused worker protection with environmental protection).

And you thought worker health and safety was a priority for the government?  That business owners ran safe shops because they were afraid of OSHA?  Yeah.  It’s not what you think.

Change? We’ll see…

I don’t do much political commentary.  There’s plenty of that to go around, and plenty of other people more in the know on such things.  But I don’t see anyone representing my views on this topic – so here goes.

Jordan Barab has been named as Deputy Assistant Secretary and Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA.  (That means he’ll be the head of OSHA, and theoretically responsible for the safety and health of a large part of America’s workforce).  On Jordan’s Confined Space blog, he noted in his farewell post that

“[There] are more fish and wildlife inspectors than OSHA inspectors, [and] the penalties from a chemical release that kills fish is higher than a chemical release that kills a worker.”

(I have another post rant in mind about the inequities between worker and environmental protection; we’ll address that another day.)

OSHA has plenty of problems to address, and Jordan has been a vocal critic of OSHA for a long time.  Now he can put his money (political capital) where his mouth is. Can he make the change he has called for?  Okay – so he’s only the Acting Asst Sec’y for now, but when an permanent Asst Sec’y is named, he’ll still be a big dog at OSHA (Deputy Asst Sec’y).

We don’t need OSHA reform – we need government reform in general.  But OSHA certainly needs an overhaul (so does the rest of the government).  It takes forever to enact a new health and safety rule.  The 2006 hexavalent chromium standard took over 15 years to complete, according to the regulatory history published in the Federal Register.  We are still regulated by Permissible Exposure Limits established with the passage of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970.  (OSHA tried to update these in 1988, but got beat up in the courts – by the labor groups they were trying to protect).  OSHA has been trying to implement an ergonomics standard since 1991 – and we still don’t have one.

There is no shortage of people beating up OSHA and blaming it all on the most recent Bush administration.  Can the democrats really do any better?  Did W. really create this problem? Did he dismantle the Agency, and disrespect workers anymore than any other previous administration?  Apparently not.  The Clinton administration didn’t do much to help out here either.  That 15 years to get the HexChrome rule in place got started during the Clinton years.

Actually, I don’t believe W., or Billy, or Barack, or any other president can fix this.  I don’t think this is necessarily an indication of poor management of an agency.  So why is OSHA so inefficient?  Because everyone else has their finger in the pie – Congress, Labor, and Industry all have their finger on the kill switch every time OSHA makes a move.  The Congressional Review Act hamstrings OSHA from doing anything without congress’ approval (OSHA’s ergonomics rule was pummeled by congress).  Every time OSHA issues a new standard, labor groups take them to court and have the standard thrown out for being too lenient (which then takes us backward to a more lenient standard??).  Industry and manufacturing groups take OSHA to court over every new standard because they are too strict and will put everyone out of business.  (You can read more about the Congressional Review Act here, along with my comment that really got me started on this rant in the first place.)

So, can Jordan Barab fix OSHA? I think he has the knowledge and skills to make the necessary change, but the government is such a huge, out-of-control bureaucracy that no one can make that change – there’s too much influence from too many other interested parties.  If he could run OSHA like a science-based business, instead of a politically driven government agency, then he might have a chance.  I doubt it.  I hope I’m wrong.

Ice Cream Factories

If you’ve ever spent more than 10 minutes in a chemical plant or refinery, or been engaged in a conversation about safety in those industries, you’ve probably heard someone say something like “we ain’t making chocolate candy out here,  y’know.”  It was just that comment (I doni’t remember who said it that day; I know it was in the HBCD Control Room in Magnolia) that prompted me to do a little research.  When somebody proclaims that “This ain’t no ice cream factory,” they are implying that this (oil refining, chemical manufacturing) is a dangerous business, and has some serious risks involved (true), unlike making something as benign as ice cream or chocolate candy.  Really?

I spent a little time on OSHA’s statistics page, and dug out the safety performance data for a variety of industries.  What I found was surprising.  Well, not really – but you might find it surprising.  Making candy and sweets is dangerous business.  Boiling oil is a lot safer than you might think.  At least in terms of how many actual injuries occur.  This chart shows the comparative injury rates in 2002 for a variety of industries (it’s tedious to go through those raw data; even if this data is 7 years old, the trend is still valid).  Food processing has the highest rates, while chemical manufacturing, oil exploration and refining are among the lowest. 


Click the thumbnail image to view a full size (legible) version

Why is that?  My own personal theory: when you walk in to a chemical plant or refinery, you know this thing could go south quickly, and do massive damage in an instant.  And you could go home with parts missing.  That sort of tends to get your attention.  On the other hand, if you’re going into the marshmallow factory, you’re probably not too worried about an explosion or fire.  But, they’ve got some serious mixers, heaters, cooking vats – equipment that can hurt you just as fast and seriously as any chemical release.  Just my own personal theory, but I think the refinery and chemical workers are more acutely aware of the risks.  So everytime I hear someone tell me “this ain’t no ice cream factory,” I remind them that indeed it isn’t and I’m glad of it – those are dangerous places.

Oh – and if you’re thinking of massive, multiple fatality events that make the news – like the big explosion at BP’s Texas City Refinery, don’t forget I’m talking here about “averages” – refinery incidents tend to be massive and make headlines.  And don’t forget that massive, multiple fatality events can happen at chicken plants and sugar mills, too.  Smaller, one-off injuries that happen EVERY DAY usually don’t even make the papers in their hometown.  Check out the Weekly Toll to see how often these “small” events occur. Shocking, really.