By Erika Henderson/Pittsburg Tank & Tower
On March 25, 1911, in less than fifteen minutes, 146 young girls were either burned to death or lost their life jumping from the eighth and ninth floor at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. A match or cigarette thrown on the unsanitary, fabric-laid floor was believed to be the cause of the fire. The fire spread quickly and exits not locked were soon blocked by fire. Girls gathered in wild panic at the windows just to have their hopes of escape become consumed with flames when the fire department ladders only extended to the sixth floor. Many jumped to their deaths in despair from the eighth and ninth-floor windows.
Twelve years later, on May 7, 1923, 41 children and 35 adults perished in the Cleveland Rural Grade School fire. The fire started on the second story of the school when a kerosene lamp, used for lighting during the enactment of a play, was knocked over. Parents from the first floor ran to gather their children on the second floor, while people from the second floor ran to the first floor to evacuate. The stairwell collapsed from the weight of the people, and the second floor’s only means of escape became the windows.
Fifty years later, 92 children and three nuns died in Our Lady of the Angels School fire. A fire started in the basement, bypassed the first floor and engulfed the second floor. Many children rushed to the windows and jumped thirty-seven feet to their death to escape. Some children died instantly from the fumes, while others died seated at their desk waiting for rescue.
Each of these stories is connected by the loss of life that occurred because a safety culture had not been established. Sprinkler systems, smoke or heat detectors were not installed. A fire protection plan had not been enforced, and safety training was not offered. Fire protection tanks and sprinkler systems are needed to save lives. But does everyone understand lives cannot be saved by just having these installed?
To save lives, a safety culture must be created to include the water tank, fire protection system, tank owners and those who perform work on the tank. Water tanks must be serviced and cared for properly to be effective in saving lives; otherwise they become a liability that could take lives. Any company, organization, city or county that owns a water tank is familiar with the AWWA, NFPA and OSHA. When a water tank is built, inspected or updated, these codes and standards are cited. They must be addressed when creating safe practices. The NFPA continues to put forth effort in updating the many codes and standards addressed during the inspections of water tanks today. Many compliance-type maintenance steps must be performed according to a timetable published by NFPA and AWWA. When these timetables and standards are not followed, accidents can occur. For example, a 300,000 gallon water tank at Lake Placid, FL, had been empty for several years and, without inspecting it first, was filled with water. The tank ruptured and killed two men. This accident probably could have been prevented if safety measures had been taken beforehand and the water tank had been inspected properly.
Most water tank owners know that emergency repairs should be addressed first, but some do not realize all repairs are important, and many things could render the system ineffective. Calcium formations could form, or sludge could accumulate to dangerous levels. These may not sound like important repairs, but if the sludge and formations are not removed, the flow of water could be restricted and the debris could create obstructions rendering the fire suppression system inadequate. A sprinkler system is one of the most valuable assets a facility can possess. However, if one part of that system fails during a fire, then people’s lives are put at risk. A fire protection tank is created to serve, protect and help save lives; but, if a safety culture is not established around it, then the tank can become the safety hazard.
As all tank owners know, it is easy to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of inspecting and maintaining a water tank to the NFPA, AWWA and OSHA standards. Therefore, it is best to hire a licensed and reputable tank company to inspect and repair the tank. They are professionals who know the codes and standards, and they are given extensive safety training just for the occasion. This has not always been the case and in the past, it was common practice to climb upon a water tank with no safety training, drug testing or instructions. Many companies did not enforce safety rules or regulations as they do today, and safety training was virtually unheard of. Safety was viewed as an individual’s own responsibility. Stories have often been told about water tank employees walking the struts and sliding down the windage rods, with no fall protection. They did this for fun, and many felt to accept a job working on towers and water tanks, one naturally accepted it could and probably would eventually lead to their death. Over the years, many have watched helplessly as their friends and coworkers were hurt, mangled and even killed while performing work in the physically harsh and demanding atmosphere.
In today’s environment just having a safety program in place is not adequate enough. A safety culture needs to be embraced to save lives. Therefore, it is important to find a water tank company that will put safety first while performing the services required. Some state and federal programs such as SHARP (Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program) identify companies that exceed the safety requirements, and this can help determine if the company has truly developed a safety culture. Lives can be saved and employees can be protected from serious injury and illness if a safety culture is developed. Today, these companies should have a safety program put into place where each worker can receive the proper training and go home to their families without being injured. These companies should be subjected to periodic safety inspections assuring continued compliance with federal, state and company safety standards. They should have a Total Recordable Injury Rate (TRIR) below the Bureau of Labor Statistics average for their industry, and they should maintain an Employer Modifier Rate (EMR) below 1.0.
Many deadly accidents have occurred from harsh conditions and unsafe practices. However, as technology has emerged and advanced, initiatives have been put into place to improve safety. The idea of examining and testing equipment for safety to prevent loss has become an accepted practice, and the view that loss could not be prevented has diminished. NFPA has played an important role in this struggle to help businesses and communities develop a safety culture. One-hundred-seventeen years later, this association is still creating codes and standards most companies follow today. Safety codes are enforced today not to create extensive workloads but to help prevent disasters from occurring. With the job market changing and with increased emphasis placed on employee safety and health, the industry must continue to improve in this area. Each individual job is unique, and what one customer will accept, another may not. A company must follow not only their company’s safety standards, federal and state regulations, but also the site-specific requirements of every customer they work for. Most locations require a JSA (Job Safety Analysis) to be completed before work can begin, and lifting and rigging plans must be completed and approved by safety professionals. Although all standards require fall protection at 6 feet off the ground or above protected levels, some company policies require fall protection at 4 feet. levels or less. Fire watch and confined space entry must be performed by a separate competent person, and a confined space monitoring instrument must be used to detect the levels of oxygen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen-sulfide levels, and the presence of flammable or explosive gases. Some jobs require employee blood testing before and after to check for levels of lead in their blood. Additionally, drug testing, background checks, and crane operator certifications must be provided. Sometimes, all equipment must be inspected before being allowed on the site.
Safety cultures are building momentum, and the future will place even greater value on them. Companies that have established a safety culture are serious about their employee’s safety and health, and are commitment to succeed in an ever-growing liability-conscious world. When a safety culture is developed, a commitment to improve everyone’s safety is also created.