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Reduce Emergency Impact by Preparing in Advance
Prepare for an emergency before it happens. Having an emergency preparation plan in place before it is needed can help reduce a company''s downtime after any incident.

By DeAnna Stephens Baker
Date Posted: 6/1/2012

                Several catastrophic explosions at sawmills in the past few months underscore the need for pallet and forest products companies to have plans in place to both reduce risks and respond to incidents when they occur. A number of these incidents took place in Canada where wood dust is considered the prime culprit. These explosions sadly resulted in multiple fatalities. But they also caused extensive damage to the facilities and machinery, shutting down operations and causing losses in production time for the companies.

                Fires, explosions, accidents, and other emergencies can be fatal to a business from the combined cost of damages and lost profit alone. All companies should be prepared to respond to an emergency – even those that have never had a major incident. Planning for possible emergencies before they happen allows a company to respond to any incident in an organized and efficient manner. Even the most careful of companies can have something happen. And it is better to have a plan in place and never need it than to need a plan and not have one in place.  

                Emergency plans can include many components. Some of the basic ones include what to do when a worker is injured, when there is a natural disaster, or in the case of a fire. And there are, of course, some rudimentary requirements of emergency plans that are mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). However, each company should take time to consider what additional components should be included in their plan, based on their location, facility set-up and any other unique situations.

                Some time spent brain-storming and attempting to think outside the box could have some great benefits for companies. A good starting point for companies that have dealt with emergencies in the past is to think about those experiences, what some of the biggest issues were, and lessons learned from them to come up with other components that should be included and emphasized in your plan.

                An example of a creative component is the inclusion of a section in your emergency plan on how to handle workplace violence.  J.F. Rohrbaugh, a wooden pallet manufacturer in Hanover, Penn. has covered this area noting that domestic disputes can spill into the workplace and become an issue that employers are unfortunately forced to handle. 

                “You see different emergencies take place from hospitals to nursing homes, and it’s a crazed world sometimes. So we address that in our emergency plan too,” said Steve Kerr, director of employee development and corporate safety at J.F. Rohrbaugh.

                An important yet often overlooked component to emergency preparation is planning how to continue operations after the initial emergency has been dealt with. Do you know how your company would handle fulfilling orders if an incident shuts down a machine or an entire facility? For companies with more than one location, this might be a matter of shifting production volumes at secondary locations. But it is important to think through all of the “what-ifs” of such a shift and the adjustments that they could require. These could include sending employees to different locations, adding extra shifts and adjusting supply and delivery routes.

                Potential scenarios should be carefully thought through and planned for so that if they are ever needed, the process can be quickly and smoothly implemented. Companies with only one location do not have those options, however. J.F. Rohrbaugh has found a creative way to deal with this issue. It has agreements in place with some “friendly competitors” to assist each other with productions needs in the event that any one of them have some or all of their production capabilities crippled by an emergency.

                Last year, J.F. Rohrbaugh’s mulch machine was rendered unusable after it caught on fire. As they waited for the insurance paperwork to be processed and a new machine arrived, Kerr said that they worked with other companies to supply their customers’ orders.

                “Having those relationships set up, described in the plan enabled us to focus, not only on the fire, but how we were going to do what we do and still make money at the end of the day,” said Kerr. “Surprisingly, it’s not that strange. When you start talking with other companies and start working with them, they’re in the same boat you could be in.”

                Kerr added that many companies understand that they too could need assistance in an emergency situation. “When you look at emergency planning from that standpoint, more people are willing to work with you because it’s a reasonable request,” he said.

                Another frequently forgotten aspect of emergencies preparation is how to handle office emergencies. Incidents that damage machinery or shut down production facilities are not the only type of major emergency that can happen to sawmill and pallet companies. If computer data, such as customer lists and order information, is corrupted or lost, it can cause just as many problems. For this reason, J.F. Rohrbaugh has consistent backup protocols for their office computers in place. If a lightning strike was to destroy their computers or if the office was destroyed by a fire or other natural disaster, a copy of all of their electronic data is safe on removable disks that they store in a secure location.

                “When necessary, we can take those disks, plug them into another computer someplace and, boom, we’re up and running,” said Kerr. “I think that’s a very valuable tool for any business to have that might experience a flood, building collapse or whatever the case may be. Even if all your machinery is in good shape, you are kind of at a standstill if you don’t have those redundancies built-in.”

                Though this article does not address most of the basic requirements of emergency planning, it is impossible to not mention the place that training holds in emergency preparation. Training workers is a vital part of any emergency preparation plan and something that companies can get creative with. Having the best and most complete plan written does absolutely no good if no one knows what it says or how to implement it.

                Vaagen Bros. Lumber, which has locations in Colville and Usk, Wash., has a consistent schedule of emergency and safety training meetings that employees are required to attend. This includes training all new employees, yearly evacuation training and drills, and monthly safety meetings on a scheduled list of safety-related topics. But they have taken it a step further than that even, by forming a safety committee.

                Suzie Gotham, the company’s human resources coordinator said that the committee includes one person from each department and shift. This is a simple way to ensure that there is someone in all areas of the facility who has the responsibility to lead other workers on what they should do in emergency situations. According to Gotham, each member of the safety committee has first aid training, is involved in conducting safety audits throughout the plant on a regular basis and makes sure that their crew knows what is going on.

                It is important for all companies and every employee to realize that they are not immune to emergencies large or small and that the most important step in preparing for any type of emergency is just that, preparing. Having plans in place that employees are familiar with can go a long way toward lowering the state of confusion that often accompanies emergency situations. And by including plans for continuing operations in the prepared plan, companies are able to think through them while they have the luxury of time to do so, instead of trying to make them on the fly, and losing even more time trying to figure out what to do.

                “The best way to avoid any type of disaster is preparedness,” said Kerr. “Prepare for the worst case scenario then pray it never happens.”


Explosion and Fire Destroys Sawmill

                Major explosions at two British Columbia sawmills this year has the Canadian industry concerned over mill safety. The most recent explosion and resulting fire at Lakeland Mills in Prince George B.C. completely destroyed the mill and resulted in over 20 employees being taken to the hospital and the deaths of two workers. Details on damage to the rest of the site, which includes a planer mill, have not been released.

                The cause of the explosion is not yet known and the company has chosen not to discuss it.

                “We will not speculate on the cause of the incident at Lakeland Mills until the proper authorities have completed their investigation,” said Greg Stewart, president of Sinclar Group Forest Products, the mill’s parent company.

                An investigation into the explosion has been initiated by WorkSafeBC, the province’s statutory agency which monitors compliance with occupational health and safety regulations. However, the investigation may take several months to conclude.

                Despite the lack of information on what caused the explosion, many have compared the explosion to one that occurred earlier this year at the Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, B.C., which also resulted in a fire that destroyed the mill, multiple hospitalizations and deaths. The cause of that explosion is still under investigation as well. The presence of combustible dust has been suggested as a possible trigger for both explosions, which is a possibility, but not confirmed.

                “We recognize that there are similarities between the explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George — both are sawmills, dust was present in both, as in all sawmills, and both mills were working with beetle-infested wood,” said Roberta Ellis, Vice President of Corporate Services at WorkSafeBC. “However, we cannot speculate, based on these similarities, as to the cause of these events.”                   Nevertheless, the latest explosion prompted WorkSafeBC to immediately issue an order to all sawmills in the province to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment with respect to hazards created by combustible dusts, including a thorough inspection of the facility, and develop and implement an effective combustible dust control program based on the risk assessment by next week.

                The Vancouver Sun reported that the B.C. Council of Forest Industries plans to establish a task force in the wake of recent fatal explosions to determine the risks of dust explosions. Council of Forest Industries president John Allan said the task force will quantify combustion risks of wood dust from pine-beetle killed logs and other timber and identify ways to mitigate dust.

                One potential concern raised by some in the industry is the impact of the pine beetle, which has killed large amounts of forests in western Canada. Mills are processing this dead, dry wood as fast as possible while it still has some market value. Some suggest that the dry beetle-killed wood poses a safety hazard much greater than normal wood because the material is so dry. Unlike a traditional fire, wood dust can explode almost without warning providing workers little time to react.

                “We are in new territory,” said Allan to the Vancouver Sun. “These two mills blew up. They just didn’t catch fire…The beetle has infected every aspect of the business.”

                Whether the explosion was caused by combustible dust or some other factor, it should serve as a reminder to other sawmills to ensure that they have up-to-date safety reviews and risk assessments, which should include looking at possible sources of dust accumulation and potential ignition sources.

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