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Explosion prompts review of safety plans regionwide

Industrial safeguards: As NHBB awaits results of explosion investigation, other companies consider changes to their policies

  • Chris Bergeron, in charge of safety and training with Atlas, stands with equipment used to set off fireworks from a safe distance.
  • Chris Bergeron, in charge of safety and training with Atlas, stands with equipment used to set off fireworks from a safe distance.
  • Chris Bergeron, in charge of safety and training with Atlas, stands with equipment used to set off fireworks from a safe distance.
  • Chris Bergeron, in charge of safety and training with Atlas, stands with equipment used to set off fireworks from a safe distance.

After more than a dozen employees were injured during an explosion in the acid room at New Hampshire Ball Bearings on Feb. 10, and with two of those workers still hospitalized, the topic of safety was pushed to the forefront for many local employers. N.H. Ball Bearings will be reviewing its safety processes following the investigation and reports related to the accident. Meanwhile, the incident has caused other industrial facilities to turn an eye to their own safety procedures.

In a statement issued through Ball Bearing Communications Project Manager Hans Baker on Wednesday, N.H. Ball Bearings commended its employees for following their emergency action plan to the letter in the wake of the accident, which minimized injuries. Employees even left behind items such as coats, car keys and other personal items, leaving the workers shivering in the parking lot while company officials performed head counts or unable to drive home. The statement said employees banded together in the aftermath to assist their fellow coworkers.

“Our employees did exactly what was required of them during an emergency. They calmly and quickly exited the building by the nearest exit to them. In many cases, their route did not bring them by their personal items, and we commend them for not delaying their exit in order to retrieve items. Any other action would have the potential of compromising their safety,” Baker wrote. “The kindnesses employees showed each other in the parking lot were many — sharing both cars and clothes for warmth, phones for calling families and, once released, offering each other rides home.”

N.H. Ball Bearings has prepared a formal, written emergency action plan which is reviewed annually, or even more frequently when there are significant changes to the facility. The company works with local fire and safety officials, as well as officials on the state and federal level, to review and update those plans.

“Safety is one of the very first mandatory training sessions given to all new employees,” Baker wrote in the release. “Once communicated, these policies are then tested annually via emergency response drills in cooperation with local emergency response teams. We communicate the procedures annually as a Best Practice using our internal safety alert program.”

The plan outlines a clear chain of command and specific roles for employees during an emergency response.

“There are specific employees who serve on the emergency response team who are trained to carry out specific duties, such as administering first aid or responding to a chemical spill,” wrote Baker. “All employees have a responsibility to evacuate according to procedures. Some employees may then have additional responsibilities, including accounting for all employees within their assigned areas.”

The preparation was a large part of minimizing injuries in the aftermath of the explosion, Baker wrote. The company intends to conduct an assessment of its safety plan after fully resuming production throughout the facility. The parts of the building most immediately impacted by the explosion remained closed through last week, although work has resumed in other portions of the building. However, whether any changes will result from the experience remain to be seen, and will be determined after N.H. Ball Bearings has received all reports relating to the explosion, Baker wrote.

“It is far too soon for us to identify what changes, if any, we should make to the formal written plan,” he wrote.

What do other businesses do?

N.H. Ball Bearings isn’t the only company that will be taking a look at its safety plan as a result of the explosion. Julia Bartlett, the vice president of operations at D.D. Bean and Sons in Jaffrey, which produces paper book matches, said that the company’s first thought upon hearing about the NHBB accident was to take a look at its own safety procedures.

“That was our immediate reaction, to get our safety team together and say, ‘What can we learn from this,’” said Bartlett in an interview Tuesday. Overall, she said, the D.D. Bean plan didn’t need much updating, although there will be some small changes, such as making sure there is a schedule available of who is supposed to be on site during the day.

“In the big picture, we didn’t really find any problems, which is nice,” Bartlett said. She added that the company would probably be conducting more drills than the two they did last year.

Like NHBB, D.D. Bean and Sons runs evacuation and incident drills several times a year, in addition to their day-to-day security and safety procedures. Jaffrey’s fire chief, David Chamberlain, is involved with regular reviews of the safety there, and the company keeps him aware of changes that occur, Bartlett said. The company employs security, both in terms of guards and monitoring of all of the company’s systems.

All employees are trained in safety procedures during hiring, said Bartlett, but that training is reviewed every year, and the company also runs simulations in addition to drills so that employees can get a feel for what the process is during an emergency.

“It’s really important when you have a long-term workforce to remind them,” said Bartlett. “They can get comfortable in the routine, and you have to remind them they have to be careful all the time.”

Deb Buxton, the co-owner of New England Forest Products in Greenfield, noted that keeping a regular tab on safety is part of the routine for her company as well. The company’s safety committee, which is made up of representatives from both the retail portion and the mill portion of the company, meets as often as every month to review any safety concerns. Even if the only concern that month is as simple as reminding people they need to make sure the yard is sanded in the winter to prevent slips on the ice, it’s still important to continue those conversations on a regular basis.

“It keeps safety right in front of them, so even if it seems like its a silly reason, we still hold that meeting, because it keeps it in the forefront of their minds. Safety is our number one concern,” said Buxton. “It is a constant topic of conversation.”

The biggest concern for New England Forest Products is injuries that might happen in the mill setting, where employees are working with machinery, said Buxton. In case of injuries, there is a clear line of relay of information. People in the office are trained and ready to deal with accidents.

As part of its regular safety maintenance, New England Forest Products has an insurance auditor come through to do a safety audit once a year. That can help catch small, fixable things that might pass under the radar of the management, she noted, like pointing out a needed handrail or something similar.

Matt Shea, the vice president of Atlas PyroVision Productions of Jaffrey, agreed with that assessment.

“The biggest thing is, don’t be afraid,” said Shea. “Have a consultant go in once a year and make sure that your business is safe.” Companies that deal in seemingly innocuous items may still have many more risks than they realize, he pointed out — even if it’s just household chemicals stored on the premises.

Shea added that communication, not only between employer and employees, but between businesses that deal with similar risks, is a key to keeping safety a priority.

Atlas is part of the American Pyrotechnics Association, which communicates with all its members whenever an accident occurs, so that all of them can learn from it, said Shea. Atlas employs a safety officer, and part of his daily duties is to review and update the safety plan and procedures, as well as train the employees in safety. When most people think of Atlas, they think of the Jaffrey facility, said Shea. And while Atlas does have several private inspectors that come in and review that everything is safe, that’s not where the biggest risk in the fireworks business lies, he said. The Jaffrey facility is relatively small, with 28 full-time employees, so day-to-day safety procedures are standard and easier to control, especially since Atlas no longer produces fireworks, which is the most hazardous part of the process. What’s less certain is the core of the business — running fireworks shows.

“Everyone thinks of the facility in Jaffrey, and yes, something could happen there. But the type of business we’re in, we perform dangerous duties, and we’re doing it in 750 venues a year. Technicians could be in a location for a show for the first time or the twenty-first, and it could be on land, water, at a school, in a field, anywhere.”

What can your business do?

Companies with more than 15 employees are required to have certain safety procedures in place, including a safety plan and a safety committee, according to Chamberlain, the Jaffrey fire chief. In Jaffrey, most of the larger employers either have a full-time safety professional or a employee who takes the lead in safety as part of his or her regular duties. But for smaller companies, there are still things that can be done to make sure that employees remain safe.

While Chamberlain recommends that all families have certain safety plans in place, including knowing what to do in a fire and a meeting place for the family, that’s also true for small companies.

“It falls back to what we teach the kids at school, during drills,” Chamberlain said.

But there are other things that an employer can do to ensure employee safety, and the safety of the responders who might come to deal with an emergency situation. The most important, Chamberlain noted, is accountability for employees, and knowing who is in the building, and who is not, including employees and guests.

“A lot of first responders are hurt or killed because they thought someone was in a building when there wasn’t,” he said. “As chief, you have to make that decision, to risk four or five firefighters for a person that may not be in a building. I’ve had that experience as chief, where my guys want to go in and search, and it ended up no one was in the building.”

Although it’s not required by law to have a safety plan at businesses with fewer than 15 employees, Chamberlain does recommend it. It can be as simple as knowing evacuation routes or if fire extinguishers are available, making sure they are maintained. The Jaffrey Fire Department also offers training on the use of extinguishers. Sprinklers and alarms should also be similarly maintained.

If a business deals with any chemicals, Chamberlain says he encourages them to know what is in their facility and report it to responders, so they can go into a situation with the full view of the equipment they may need.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ex. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com.

She’s on Twitter @AshleySaari.

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