Are You Storing Hazardous Materials Safely?

By Nighswonger, Todd | Occupational Hazards, June 2000 | Go to article overview

Are You Storing Hazardous Materials Safely?


Nighswonger, Todd, Occupational Hazards


It's time to think outside the container when assessing the risks of storing hazardous materials.

It can be hard for an employee to think about a worst-case scenario when drums of flammable liquids have been kept in a corner of the plant's storage room for years without incident.

Convincing top management to expend additional resources to store hazardous materials safely can be even more difficult, especially when there are no accidents to magnify the need to exercise caution, according to Michael H. Ziskin, president of Field Safety Corp. of North Branford, Conn.

"With a material that doesn't do anything and sits there minding its own business, people may look at it and decide there are 20 years of experience with it sitting there doing nothing," Ziskin said. "Experience dictates it's a material that can be put almost anywhere, and nothing will happen to it."

The problem is that a hazardous material -- whether it be flammable, combustible or corrosive -- cannot be stored anywhere. Unfortunately, it may take a worst case, such as a toxic leak or an explosion, to convince managers and workers to focus on the safe storage of hazardous materials. A fire or explosion can result in millions of dollars of damage and claim workers' lives. In fact, improper storage and handling of flammable liquids is the leading cause of industrial fires.

Because of a low probability of an incident, the call for management to base a risk assessment on potential environmental impact and worst-case scenarios can fall on deaf ears.

Ziskin has found that to be the case in his work at Field Safety, a management and educational firm specializing in environmental health and safety. The problem, he said, is that not enough companies take a comprehensive approach to assessing the risks of storing hazardous materials.

Too often, the focus is only on storing materials according to regulations, such as OSHA's 29 CFR 1910 Subpart H and consensus standards like National Fire Protection Association Code 30 for flammable and combustible liquids. Conventional thinking is that, if the rules are followed, there will not be a problem. That thinking, however, can cause a false sense of security.

For safety's sake, it's time to widen the focus, Ziskin said, because no regulation can cover every eventuality. "You've got to get outside the box. You've got to look at how that hazardous material relates to the rest of the world."

Risk Assessment

Any issues pertaining to storage can be resolved by answering four questions: What material is being stored? Why is it being stored? Where is it being stored? How is it being stored?

What material is being stored? Understand the physical and chemical properties of a hazardous material. The material may be incompatible with some substances and conditions. For instance, flammable liquids should not be stored with an oxidizing agent.

Why is the material being stored? Any risk assessment should include ways to eliminate or reduce the risk (i.e., hazardous materials). Companies should find ways to use less hazardous substances or reduce the quantity of materials stored, Ziskin said. A just-in-time inventory approach, for example, will lower the amount of hazardous materials on site.

Where is the material being stored? Ensure that "storage" is clearly defined as a permanent, temporary or transient location. A storage location can be anywhere the container is placed, even if for a short time. "Sometimes, a storage location is nothing more than a place to put the hazardous material when the storage area is full," Ziskin said. "The most vulnerable location for a hazardous material is in a location where people don't expect it to be."

In addition, recognize the way in which the material is being moved into and out of the storage location. Would handling fewer containers reduce the chance of a spill? If so, it might be safer to move a pallet with one large container than a pallet with four smaller drums. …

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