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Awareness of problems to address and being under the whip

  • marimac 

By Andrew Perks

How many times have you been called to an incident and had to make a snap decision on what’s happening and how to handle it? You’re the expert and the client looks to you to sort out his problems – quickly.

Awareness implies that you have knowledge of something by maintaining a level of alertness in observing or interpreting what you see, hear, feel, etc. Some people are very aware, but most of us limit our awareness to what we concentrate on. We focus so much on specific “things” that we don’t realise that there are a number of other scenarios involved with many varying outcomes that can impact on the issues at hand.

Some time ago I read in an IIAR publication about an incident in the US at Shreveport, Louisiana where there was a serious ammonia leak in a cold room which resulted in an ignition and injuries as discussed further along in this article. An emergency responder who was dealing with the incident later commented that several times he had felt that something was not right with the whole situation – gut feel.

They had followed the proper procedures at that time by referring to the ammonia data they had available but it did not alert them to the fact that at critical concentrations between 16 to 28%, ammonia is flammable.

This is still the case in South Africa as I recently did some ammonia site incident response training in Humansdorp where the fire department showed me their data on ammonia.

Nowhere does it mention that ammonia is flammable. Imagine their surprise when I showed them one or two of the training videos. They were 100% correct.

Although ammonia as a liquid or a vapour is not flammable, it is in that transient phase where it is flashing off that it is dangerous. Got to hand it to the fire department/emergency services – amazing people.

All this brings me back to gut feel, I don’t know how many of the readers have read “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell (you should read his other books as well), he calls it the power of thinking without thinking. Interesting statement. I read this book some time ago and it really impacted me. The book describes how snap judgements, first impressions and intuitions can be more useful than painstaking rational thoughts.

Obviously, this is relative to one’s experience and knowledge. In the book he mentions that you need at least 40% but never more than 70% of the whole picture to come to a decision. Sometimes we need to come to a quick decision. He talks of where there was a war game set up in the US where the military followed a strict protocol only to be beaten by instinctive intuition and on-the-fly adaptation by someone who was not bound by these protocols. We need to think like that in an emergency.

Anyway, lets get back to the incident, the initial response to the ammonia leak in the cold room was when two on-site responders backed up by two fire guys entered the room wearing only breathing apparatus (BA) sets. They soon had to retire to wash down due to the high ammonia concentrations in the area burning them. Again, the fire guys had an uneasy feeling about the situation and donned their level A clothing (note not firefighting gear) and went back into the room to address the leak.

Not knowing that the ammonia was flammable they were caught in an ignition of the vapour when there was a spark from the forklift. Their level A butyl suits melted, resulting in both of them suffering serious burns which they now have to live with. It’s that “IF” word… if only they had listened to their gut feelings.

Awareness can be, and many times is, critical to our proper response to the world around us. Being aware is not a one-time thing, you need to be aware all the time. To be aware we must consciously think about the details and do a risk assessment – what am I doing, what could go wrong, who would it affect and how do I control it should it all go pear-shaped.

In our field of industrial ammonia refrigeration, we must all work on improving our awareness training and thus improve our state of readiness to make the best decisions.

About Andrew Perks

Image credit: Andrew Perks

Andrew Perks is a subject expert in ammonia refrigeration. Since undertaking his apprenticeship in Glasgow in the 1960s he has held positions of contracts engineer, project engineer, refrigeration design engineer, company director for a refrigeration contracting company and eventually owning his own contracting company and low temperature cold store. He is now involved in adding skills to the ammonia industry, is merSETA accredited and has written a variety of unit standards for SAQA that define the levels to be achieved in training in our industry.

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