Occupational Safety and Hazard Assessment in Steam Boilers

The National Board Inspection Code (NBIC) and Factories and Machinery Act (Malaysia) recognized the potential hazards of steam boilers and established various codes and regulations pertaining to controlling the hazards and minimizing risks. Each year, the authorized inspectors inspect fireside and waterside for defects, scaling, and corrosion. Each year, all essential valves and fittings are dismantled for inspection. Plate thickness is checked, boiler water analysis results are reviewed, and indeed, the authority enforces rigorous maintenance on steam boilers but still, various boiler accidents happened. One might wonder why. The reason lies in one salient factor: human error is the leading cause of boiler accidents. One statistic indicated that 83% of boiler accidents were a direct result of human errors due to lack of knowledge and awareness. Although inspection has become stricter, the local authority does not cover inspection on boiler safety controls and all routine or non-routine activities. OSHA can only provide guidelines for safety in the workplace but ensuring the implementations is beyond their scopes.

The fundamental cause of hazards in an organization is organizational inadequacies. The inadequacies can be related to safety controls, safe operating procedures (SOP), hazard and risk assessment and controls, and training or awareness. With inadequacies, employees usually do not realize the hazards and consequences of their actions. Therefore, to minimize or eliminate risks exposed to all employees, contractors, and visitors in their activities, an organization should establish occupational health and safety (OHS) management system. Only through OHS that hazards can be recognized, and safety and health risks can be assessed and properly addressed. The management can set objectives, provide suitable controls, provide sets of procedures (SOP’s), organize training programs, and establish safety performance evaluation.

Boilers have many potential hazards that must be controlled by safety devices and safe work practice. Before identifying the hazards, one must understand the meaning of hazards. In this context, hazard is defined as “a source or situation with a potential for harm in terms of injury or ill health, damage to property, or a combination of these”. To begin identifying hazards, the management must know what activities are involved. Activities can be divided into two categories which are routine and non-routine. Routine activities include daily operation, chemical preparation, and fuel storage and handling, while non-routine activities include boiler overhaul, confined space entry, and emergency response. The first stage in hazard identification is a selection of job to be analyzed.

The management is to select the key activities first, such as daily operation and chemical preparation. In the second stage, OHS management is to break the activities into logical steps. The logical steps must be unique to the activities, and trivia activities such as switching on lights should be avoided. Examples are taking data from various meters during operation, or pouring boiler chemicals into a jar. In the third stage, the management is to identify hazards and determine the corresponding risks in each step. When preparing boiler chemicals, the boiler operators are exposed to corrosive liquid spill and acid gas release. Risk is the consequence, and in this case, the risks are eyes lesion and pain, burn injury, or cancer if handling hydrazine. High noise level which is above 85 dBA is an example of hazard in daily operation and the risk is obvious, which is deafness. In stage four, the management is to develop risk elimination or reduction measures.

For high noise level, risk elimination or reduction measures would require path noise control such as acoustic insulation (lining) or acoustic partition, enclosure for the noise-radiating source, increase pipe size to reduce steam turbulence, or install noise diffuser. The best approach is to control noise at source, such as installing silencer, changing equipment for example changing normal pressure reducing valve (PRV) to low-noise PRV. Other risk controls for high noise level would be wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) or reducing exposure time. The most common hazard for boiler operation is low water and the risk could be a permanent damage to the boiler or explosion. Modern boilers are usually equipped with automatic level controllers, low water level burner interlocks, low water alarm, and regular checking of gage glasses by the boiler operators. All these are risk controls by safety devices. Working in confined space is a non-routine activity, the hazard associated with it is physical injuries or fatalities due to asphyxia or poisonous gas, and the current risk control is following the guidelines of confined space entry, which shall not be covered here.

In pouring the chemical into a jar, the hazard is chemical splashes to eyes, and the risk is eye lesion and injury. From this, the risk control would be wearing safety goggles. Another example of daily operation is blowing down. Blowdown can cause spillage of hot water, which is the hazard, and may scald boiler operators, which is the risk. The example of risk control is blowing down into the blowdown chamber instead of directly into the atmosphere thereby reducing potential spillage of hot water to the surrounding.

In the final stage, after job safety analysis is completed for each activity, the activities, hazards and risks, and the corresponding risk controls should be documented for reference. Based on that, safe operation procedures can be established to ensure risks at the workplace can be eliminated or minimized. Training must be conducted by the competent person-in-charge to all boiler operators to explain in detail the hazards, risks, controls, procedures and responsibility as well as accountability.

For any organization which does not have structured OHS management system, I would recommend OHSAS 18001 or MS 1722 certification. OHSAS 18001 or MS 1722 provides a set of procedures and tools to promote continual improvement through hazard identification, risk assessment, and control of risk in a very systematic way. Apart from these benefits, I noticed with the implementation of OHSAS 18001 standards, the management and employees in my organization have improved significantly in their understanding of health and safety legislation as well as the ability to demonstrate compliance.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) is a United States federal law which oversees health and safety in both the public and private workplace sectors. Signed into law by President Nixon in 1970, the goal of the law is to ensure the workplace safety of employees, by requiring employers to remove potential hazards such as unsanitary conditions, toxic chemicals, mechanical dangers, and excessive noise.

The legal forerunners of OSHA were introduced with the passing of the Safety Appliance Act in 1893. This was the first federal law to require workplace safety equipment, although it only applied to railroad workers. Later, in 1910, after a series of deadly mine explosions, Congress created the Bureau of the Mines to research improvements in mine safety. With the increased industrial production following World War II, accidents in the workplace soared to an all time high. In the two years preceding the introduction of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, about 14,000 employees died each year from accidents and another 2 million were injured on the job. Additionally, the increase in the use of manufacturing chemicals exposed workers to greater amounts of hazards.

Heightened awareness in the mid 1960’s about the environmental impact of chemical usage increased the public’s interest in protecting worker safety, as exposure to toxins was greater for employees than the environment into which the chemicals were dumped. After President Johnson tried to introduce a comprehensive worker protection bill that later failed, President Nixon proposed OSHA. This compromise bill was less demanding on the employers, although it did utilize the Department of Labor’s ability to enforce employer violations. OSHA officially went into effect on April 28, 1971, which is now celebrated as Worker’s Memorial Day by many American Labor Unions.

OSHA also created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency within the Department of Labor. This Administration has the jurisdiction to create and enforce workplace standards. The Act also formed the independent Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission to review enforcement actions. Finally, OSHA also established the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), another autonomous research organization that forms a part of the Center for Disease Control. By creating independent investigative agencies, OSHA effectively created a systems of bureaucratic checks and balances for the best of worker protection laws and to provide a fair and methodological enforcement of such rules.

Occupational Health and Safety Industry Best Practices

The primary objective of the Occupational Health and Safety Act is to ensure that safety at work is achievable in every organization big or small. By complying with this act, you can address issues that may pose danger to your employees, well before any untoward incidents occur.

Workplace inspections serve a critical role in fulfilling this objective and in maintaining a safe, productive work environment where your business can flourish. These are planned walk-through activities carried out in the work premises to critically examine various factors. Some of the aspects that may be covered are materials, buildings, equipment and so on which may potentially pose danger.

One should call in competent, experienced, safety consultants to outline how an effective safety inspection should be carried out for your workplace. Keep in mind that the nature of business, the kind of processes involved here, the kind of equipment being used etc have an impact on which aspects need to be covered during your workplace inspections.

Planning your Inspections

To carry out a truly effective inspection, it needs to be thoroughly planned where every important aspect is taken into consideration. Hiring experienced safety consultants is good move because they can bring in their expertise to point out various aspects that you may not have considered. In addition, you can have your own team enrolled in health and safety officer courses with these experts to learn how periodic inspections should be carried out to curb the risks in the workplace.

Establishing acceptable standards for various workplace activities, processes and the environment, in general, is a key component of workplace safety planning process. With the standards in place, it becomes easier for your employees and your inspectors to quickly identify increased risk in any area well in advance, so that it can be rectified before it causes any harm.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act Guide has been prepared to assist employers, workers, constructors, supervisors, owners, suppliers, and others who have duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The purpose of the OHS Regulation is to promote occupational health and safety and to protect workers and other persons present at workplaces from work-related risks to their health, safety, and well-being.

The occupational health and safety professional plays a major role in the development and application of accident investigations, risk assessments, loss prevention, and safety training programs for workers. They develop programs that will in conserving life, health and property; improve productivity by implementing loss-control programs in consultation with company and labour officials; identify health and safety hazards in the work environment and advise corrective action.