Personal Protective Equipment – Using the Right Tool for the Job

A recent New York Times article illustrated, quite graphically, how workers at a Minnesota pork processing plant became exposed to a mysterious immunogenic material.  Workers performing or stationed near a particular task developed muscle weakness, fatigue, and other neurological symptoms.  Most workers were found to be properly wearing hard hats, gloves, lab coats, and eye protection; but many did not wear face masks, and some had bare, unprotected extremities while on the job.  The primary barrier designed to contain the materials from the pork plant process was later discovered to be inadequate, allowing aerosolized tissue to come into contact with workers’ exposed mouth, nose, and skin on their arms.

While researchers, including CUMC’s W. Ian Lipkin, MD, are working on the epidemiological puzzle of the workers’ symptoms, the lesson as it relates to personal protective equipment (PPE) is clear.  Selection of PPE to protect against the hazards associated with the activities and materials of one’s job is essential.  In the event of a failure of a primary control barrier or engineering control such as a fume hood, PPE can offer limited but critical protection. Researchers and workers in biomedical and laboratory settings must conduct risk assessments, based on the materials and activities associated with a particular task, to evaluate their needs and select and properly use the appropriate PPE.  When selecting PPE, keep in mind these considerations:
— Not all gloves are suitable for use with all materials; latex for example, is an ineffective barrier against formaldehyde;
— Safety glasses provide less protection than tight-fitting goggles; use goggles when there is increased risk of splash during a particular task;
— Lab coats can effectively protect clothing from small (research-quantity) splashes; consider an impermeable apron when handling larger quantities or any amount of high-hazard materials;
— Respiratory protection cannot be self-selected and worn without consultation by EH&RS/EH&S.

Please feel free to contact EH&RS/EH&S with questions or concerns about selecting and using appropriate PPE for your job.

Fire Safety - Why So Many “False Alarms”?

This is a question that is often asked of Fire Safety.   Fire alarm systems are made up of smoke
detectors, duct detectors, water flow switches, sprinkler heads, and pull stations, which, when activated for any reason, will transmit an alarm throughout the building and to the NYC Fire Department. A typical building will have several hundred of these devices monitoring air and water flow to detect a fire.  These, and other parts of the system (tamper switches, strobes, horns, and speakers), are all connected to a fire alarm panel that is usually located in the lobby of the building.

All of these fire alarm devices are very sensitive and sometimes go into alarm for reasons other than a fire.  Dust is the most common cause for smoke and duct detector activations due to building construction/renovation projects. While smoke and duct detectors in the immediate work area are disabled during the construction, due to the unpredictable movement of the air, especially by elevators, detectors in remote areas are sometimes activated.  With construction there is also welding, vibrations, and the accidental broken pipe or sprinkler head that can also set off an alarm.  Other “false alarm” causes are steam, electrical power surges or dips, loss of water pressure, and even the occasional pull box activation.As you can see, there are many causes for fire alarm activations other than a fire.  Even though a nuisance at times, these devices are necessary and required by fire code for your protection.  Smoke detectors are required by code to be cleaned semi-annually; fire alarm vendors are present on campus performing this cleaning along with other required maintenance to ensure that the fire alarm systems are working properly.  For any questions about fire safety either at work or at home please email Fire Safety at: cumcfire@columbia.edu.

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