BOBBY J. PIIRAINEN
Working at a treatment storage disposal facility might not be the most glamorous job, but what goes on inside is pretty important business. Where do you think all that hazardous waste we create ends up? What the job lacks in excitement, though, is more than made up by the potential for danger, as I found out firsthand.
I’d just arrived at my job as a hazardous waste handler and was on my way to change into my work clothes. As I approached the changing room, I saw a drum we’d picked up the previous day sitting on a pallet. What caught my eye was the drum had started to “football,” or bulge, at both ends.
Being a first responder for the base, I immediately recognized this as a potential problem and decided to investigate. One of the first things you look or listen for when a drum takes this shape is pinging. If the drum pings, it means the metal is starting to fatigue and might burst. If that happens, you could be facing anything from a normal spill to a full-blown disaster, depending on the material contained inside the drum.
There wasn’t any pinging, so I moved on to the second warning sign, which is whether the drum is hot. If it’s hot, a chemical reaction probably is happening inside the drum, which can lead to a real problem. I carefully walked up to the drum to check for heat but felt none.
Once I determined the drum was not going to blow, I pulled out the paperwork to see what it contained. The only substances listed were waste oil and paint. I figured the bulging probably was due to someone overfilling the drum and not leaving a vapor space. It was a warm morning, so it made sense that this was the problem. I decided there was nothing more to do than let the extra air out, so I put the paperwork back on the drum and continued to the changing room.
It took me less than five minutes to change clothes, but as I finished, I started thinking about that drum again. There was something about it that gave me an uneasy feeling and I wanted to investigate more. I left the changing room and walked back toward the drum. I was about 30 feet from it when the top blew.
You must understand this container was a bung-type drum, and its top was welded on tightly. The only way to put material or waste inside this type of drum is to unscrew one of the two bung tops. The force of the blast sent the drum’s top about 50 feet in the air. I could feel the force of the explosion from where I was standing.
When it finally dawned on me what had just happened, I decided to leave work a little early to calm my nerves. What would have happened to me had that drum exploded while I was standing over it? The outcome surely would have been bad. Since that day, I’ve made it a point to tell my story whenever I get the chance. Hopefully my experience will keep someone from making the same mistake or maybe even save their life.FYI
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration offers the following advice for handling bulging drums:• Pressurized drums are extremely hazardous. Wherever possible, do not move drums that may be under internal pressure, as evidenced by bulging or swelling.
• If a pressurized drum has to be moved, whenever possible, handle the drum with a grappler unit constructed for explosive containment. Either move the bulged drum only as far as necessary to allow seating on firm ground, or carefully overpack the drum. Exercise extreme caution when working with or adjacent to potentially pressurized drums.
For more information, visit OSHA’s website at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/complinks/OSHG-HazWaste/11-12.pdf
or the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center’s hazardous materials webpage at https://safety.army.mil/ON-DUTY/Workplace/HazardousMaterials(HAZMAT).aspx