By Roger Marks, Lion Technology Inc.

Workplace chemical releases can be a terrifying, chaotic experience even for well-prepared managers and personnel. Releases of hazardous substances occur for myriad reasons; noncompliance, honest mistakes, defective containers, adverse weather conditions, and others.

These emergency situations—and how the affected facilities responded—underscore the importance of effective environmental and safety compliance programs for workplaces big and small that use or store hazardous chemicals. These incidents also serve as a useful reminder that when it comes to hazardous substances, the best offense is often a good defense.

A textbook chemical release

What happened: On February 27, 2018, a paperback book making facility experienced a release of hazardous materials that sickened ten workers and forced the evacuation of four hundred more from the Luzerne County, Pennsylvania site. Chemicals used in book binding can include hazardous adhesive ingredients like ethylene, acetate, styrene block copolymers (SBCs), and polyurethane. 

What we can learn: Workers who handle or may be exposed to hazardous chemicals must understand the chemical hazards they face on-the-job. Effective OSHA hazard communication (HazCom) training is required for all employees who handle or may be exposed to hazardous chemicals. HAZWOPER awareness training is critical for employees who may witness a hazardous substance release.

Two-alarm fire at former Superfund site

What happened: Beginning on March 3, 2018, firefighters battled a blaze at a specialty metals facility and former Superfund site that stores hazardous chemicals in Albany, Oregon. First responders took steps to evaluate the environmental and safety conditions at the plant—like taking air samples—before entering the building. 

What we can learn: An effective hazard communication program and compliance with community right-to-know requirements prove crucial in situations like this. When first responders arrive to address a chemical release or fire, they need to quickly ascertain the hazards present to protect themselves and respond effectively.

To ensure responders are well-informed and prepared to act in the event of an emergency, facility managers and environmental professionals must know what’s expected of them under chemical reporting programs such as the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).

Do you smell that?

What happened: The Contra Costa County Fire Department responded to a call of a strange odor attributed to hazardous chemicals leaking from two tank cars in a Pittsburg, California rail yard in late February 2018. Responders issued a shelter-in-place warning for locals by sounding warning alarms installed around town. Residents in this area know that, when these alarms sound, they should go inside, shut windows, close vents, and turn off air conditioning.

What we can learn: In this case, an effective community warning system alerted residents to the danger and helped prevent mass exposure and illness. Quick identification of the problem and a timely response helped to limit the danger to residents and prevent widespread environmental contamination.

Last word

Understanding what your business must do to prepare for and respond to chemical releases is not only important for compliance, it’s crucial to protect the health and safety of your personnel, the public, and the environment. Whether it happens because of a mistake, an accident, or an act of God, when chemicals are released, lives are at stake. How you prepare and respond can make all the difference.

3 Workplace Chemical Incidents to Learn From, Industry TodayAbout the Author
Roger Marks is a writer and subject matter expert with Lion Technology Inc., the nation’s leader in EH&S training and winner of Industry Insight’s Best Regulatory Compliance Training, USA award for 2017. Find hazardous materials, hazardous waste, environmental, and safety training trusted since 1977—available nationwide and online anytime, anywhere at

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