Most Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) Professionals have heard the mantra that complying with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations isn’t enough, and I agree. When you’re working toward a safer workplace for employees and to protect the community at large, the more taken into consideration the better — consensus standards in industry, best practices, proven risk- avoidance tactics and more. Though most professionals agree with this in theory, the practical application is sometimes elusive.
In fairness, it’s not that EHS professionals don’t want to achieve an ideal workplace that is safer for employees and better for the environment, nor is it that they don’t know how. It’s that there are often barriers beyond their control that prevent it. One of the biggest barriers is the cost of retrofitting something to get it to that higher ideal state.
Over the years, I’ve visited many different types of facilities, ranging from those built at the turn of the 20th century, still with the original wood block floors, to some that were built in the past two decades. I’ve also spent a lot of time talking with employees who want to make changes at a piece of machinery, in a storage area or throughout a process to increase safety for the environment or for their coworkers, but they can’t take anything out of service or significantly alter the footprint of the building or area involved. Budget constraints are common. Fortunately, most of these problems have alternate solutions with acceptable costs and ease of implementation.
Occasionally, however, I do get the opportunity to see a facility that is being built from the ground up. It’s an amazing experience when I get to see EHS professionals involved in the design and building phases of the project, before construction and installation of machines and processes. This allows the use of best practices and control technologies that help eliminate risks.
I recently visited a state-of-the-art lithium battery manufacturing facility in this position. For an EHS professional, this was like going to a major amusement park. It wasn’t a fantasy — the EHS folks at this facility were really, truly part of the construction process from its inception, not as an afterthought. It was evident from the time that I entered the parking lot that this was going to be an unbelievable experience.
Batteries were being produced in one section of the facility that had been finished, but other parts of the overall facility were still under construction. One of the first things that I noticed throughout the facility was how neat and clean everything was. There was no extraneous clutter anywhere, even in the construction areas. Where there were small stockpiles of anything, it was just the amount needed for that shift or that day’s production. And supplies were near the area where they would be used, not in an aisle or anywhere else that they shouldn’t be. There really wasn’t even a warehouse. When one part of the process was finished, those parts or products immediately moved to the next area. When the finished products were complete, they were immediately palletized, wrapped and put into trailers for shipment.
Because of the nature of the products being manufactured, the facility deals with a lot of bulk hazardous materials. Many of these chemicals are stored outdoors in above ground tanks with sealed concrete secondary containment systems that, naturally, are free of cracks, debris and standing water. The contents are conveyed into the building by piping that has its own secondary containment. I have often read about secondary containment for piping as a best management practice, but this was the first time that I got to see this it in use. How validating to see that it actually can be done efficiently and effectively.
This was also the first time that I got to see explosion-rated rooms inside a facility. I’ve seen buildings that are detached from the main facility, and I understand that one of the many reasons why they are often detached is that it is really hard to meet the necessary specifications to have them inside a facility. The rooms at this facility were not only explosion-rated, they had also been designed with segregated sumps so that as the facility’s needs grow, incompatible materials could be stored in the same room and have dedicated sumps to prevent reactions between chemicals.
Another valuable feature is that there are no floor drains in the facility. Instead, each floor has containment in case the sprinkler system needs is activated. When this happens, vacuum pumps can be used to transfer the sprinkler water to the onsite wastewater treatment facility for processing. Each area whose process involves liquids also has its own containment system so that if something does leak or spill the liquid doesn’t reach walkways or other production areas. All plumbed drains in the building, as well as all of the stormwater drains outside the facility, lead directly to one of the two onsite wastewater treatment facilities for processing. These facilities are set up to handle both routine and upset conditions. After processing, all outflow enters the municipal sanitary water treatment facility as an additional safeguard against pollution.
Also, there are only two elevators in the facility, and one is solely a freight elevator, so the stairs provide plenty of exercise. First aid kits, defibrillators, eyewash stations, spill kits and other safety and response items are readily available throughout the facility and are clearly marked so that they can be quickly accessed. There’s also lots of natural lighting, green space and open office space that helps promote employee well being.
Granted, this site does have a larger budget than many facility builders can even dream about, but it wasn’t lavish spending that made these best practices a reality. The EHS team considered practical measures and made sure that they were implemented in the design phases before construction started. This minimized the additional cost to the project.
This type of involvement is rare, not to mention getting to start from scratch to create an ideal space. As for the rest of us — let’s seek satisfaction in finding solutions that work within the constraints of a budget and a fixed space.