By Andrew Perks
What if you have an incident on your site – do you think you are ready?

From time to time I come across new videos and technical material that I incorporate into our training programmes. Training really is an ever-evolving process that needs to be continually enforced. The Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act requires continuous on-the-job training, but it is so easy to forget why we need to do this. The reality is that if we are not exposed to dangerous situations at our place of work daily; we become complacent and start putting ourselves at risk.

The reason I am bringing this topic up again is the latest video I bought from the USA about the ‘Jose Mata’ story. This is about a refrigeration-plant operator who simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in life-threatening circumstances. What makes it particularly impactful is that it is Mata who tells his story, and as it unravels so also do those of his wife and his employer. I don’t think it is possible to listen to this story without thinking ‘it could have been me’. It is a very emotional experience.

Mata goes through the day of the accident and how, what started as a normal day, ended in a near-catastrophic accident adjacent to where he was working. I know you are going to say that this just shows you how dangerous ammonia is. And it is true. It is a refrigerant that can be dangerous. But what about that car you drive that contains 50 litres of flammable material? It makes you think, doesn’t it?

Anyway, back to Mata. He is busy working when he hears a strange noise in a plant that needs investigation. As he heads in that direction, a condenser ruptures and releases a cloud of some 180 kg of ammonia, covering him in a dense mist. This is when his training kicks in and he falls to the ground and starts to crawl away while becoming more and more disorientated. Fortunately for him, he had two fellow workers close by who grabbed him and got him out of the immediate vicinity of the release. As they were administering first aid, the emergency services were notified and the site’s emergency plan kicked in. We will talk about that plan later. When they got him to a safe area, they looked for the safety shower, which, of course, was in the release area and of no use. There were no hoses, so they used buckets of water to wash him down. But a continuous flow of water is needed and that was not available. The first thing needed is to get that ammonia off the person and that is all about water – lots and lots of water. Mata’s colleagues knew this, but as the ammonia-soaked clothing continued to burn Mata`s skin, the assistants started removing his clothes which were not properly defrosted resulting in further injuries as they took his skin with the coveralls. Mata’s day was getting worse and worse. He stopped them from removing his clothes, resulting in more intense burns.

Mata can remember getting lifted into the ambulance and after that being transferred to the hospital. The video goes on to talk about airlifting him to a burns hospital where he stayed for two weeks before returning to his hometown where he underwent three weeks of rehabilitation. He talks about how his sense of smell, taste and sight have all been affected, how he is still in pain and the difficult nights when he lives through it again and again.

Training really is an ever-evolving process that needs to be continually enforced.Training really is an ever-evolving process that needs to be continually enforced. Image credit: Pixabay

The emergency services were well trained and quickly got the release under control when they arrived. This is a potential problem in South Africa due to logistical issues. The local emergency responders do not always understand the issues associated with ammonia releases.

One of the impacts of something like this that we never talk about is the effect on the family and co-workers. His wife tells a very touching story of the family’s journey and how the company stepped up to the plate and assisted them through this very difficult period. She comments on how he had been working on the plant for some 17 years and if it had not been for his training, he would not have made it. This sends a message to those people who find training sessions a bore and a waste of time.

We can all learn a lot from this story. Are you ready for an incident like this? Do you have a proper site emergency plan?

The company in the story openly acknowledges that they did not and are working to upgrade their ineffective plan.

As we look at this video it makes us wonder if we are ready for such an event. Is your emergency plan in place and effective? Are your people trained for a site incident?
This is not simply South African Qualification and Certification, or Committee for Gas (SAQCCG) training – it is site specific. There is now a requirement for sites to have emergency response planning in place as per SANS 1514:2018 (Major hazard installation: Emergency response planning).

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