While almost everyone depends on the petrochemical industry for fuel to operate machinery, travel or cook, the industry has a responsibility to ensure that its impact on the environment is kept to the minimum. Occupational health and safety (OHS) standards can be key to achieving this.

The petrochemical industry in South Africa is estimated to make about R365 billion a year in sales. However, it has the potential to be detrimental to the environment. More than most industries, it needs to consider the effect on areas surrounding its operations, whether they be mining, processing or transporting chemicals.

Oil and petrochemical spills in the ocean, for example, have frequently made headlines over the years for the damage they have caused to the eco-system of the ocean, including the death of sea creatures and damage to reefs. The industry must make sure its operations adhere to the relevant standards and legislation pertaining to a range of issues – from protecting employees to transporting and disposing of materials.

The Recycling Oil Saves the Environment (ROSE) Foundation assists in reducing the impact of the industry on the environment by recycling oil. The Foundation reports that used oil contains harmful compounds and carcinogens that can easily contaminate the environment, especially when it is disposed of in drains, landfills or onto the ground where it can leach into the soil.

Usually because of a lack of education, many people dispose of their oil improperly or illegally. South Africa generates an estimated 120-million litres of used lubricant oil annually. If not collected, this oil ends up in the environment, where it can damage fertile ground and contaminate precious water resources.

Used oil needs to be drained into a clean container with a tight-fitting lid that hasn’t been used to store other chemicals. These containers need to be placed under a cover and stored away from a heat or ignition source. Oil-change pans need to be tightly sealed and covered to protect against rainwater (oil contaminated with water is very difficult to recycle).

The oil should also not mix with any other automotive fluids. Used oil can be dropped off at approved municipal garden refuse sites. Alternatively, most reputable service centres have used-oil storage facilities that accept used oil. The centres are paid according to volume by the collectors who take it away for processing.

Employees working in the petrochemical industry are also at risk of injury or illness. Exposure to petrochemicals has been linked with increased risk of cancer, respiratory diseases and genito-urinary conditions. Companies within the petrochemical industry should provide frequent health screenings to monitor the impact of the workplace on the employees.

The appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) should be provided, including chemical-resistant hand protection, overalls, eye protection and respiratory support systems. Deciding what PPE is apropriate will depend on the role of the employee and the application. Hand protection, for example, can be cut or chemical resistant, although not all gloves are resistant to the same level of cut or type of chemical.

Ansell is a PPE supplier for a number of industries, including industrial, healthcare and life sciences. It has a range of hand and body PPE specifically aimed at providing protection against chemicals. Companies need to ensure that the PPE also fits each individual properly, because, if the employee is uncomfortable with it, they might remove it and expose themselves to harm.

Ansell notes: “Every day millions of workers across a variety of industries perform the same routines out of habit, sometimes wearing inadequate hand protection, which can lead to distraction and affect their work experience.

“Maybe their gloves are uncomfortable. Maybe they’re too bulky. Maybe they’re allowing oil to seep in, or, worst of all, maybe they aren’t providing adequate protection. It’s a distraction many workers have learned to live with. Over time though, this distraction can lead to worker dissatisfaction and jeopardise safety by prompting the employee to remove the gloves. It can cost both the worker and their company valuable productivity.”

Organisations should consult with industry experts on the best PPE for the application. It’s also recommended that they sign up for the necessary training to ensure that employees are using their PPE correctly.

Another obstacle for the petrochemical industry is transportation of material. It is often during transportation of the goods that chemicals are spilled. For South African petrochemical companies, the main focus should be on road transportation, which is the most common form of transporting perochemicals in the country.

A first step is to ensure that the vehicle and driver comply with regulations regarding transporting dangerous goods and petrochemicals. The driver needs to be at least 25 years old with a category-D professional driving permit and be certified annually as a qualified person by a Department of Transport-accredited training provider.

Standards for transporting dangerous goods change every two years. It is therefore important for transport operators to stay abreast of amendments. Compliance with standards and legislation is key to ensuring that goods are transported safely, and that the company is protected by its insurance provider.

The vehicle also needs to be adapted appropriately; this includes fitting placards to indicate the transport of hazardous materials and a Dangerous Goods Transport Permit, which is issued by a local emergency responder. It is essential that the placards comply with the relevant specification, such as having a ten-millimetre black border to ensure all the relevant information is visible.

Safety equipment should also be on board the vehicle at all times so that the driver can respond to any emergency situations, including spills or fires. The driver should have access to a fire extinguisher and spill kit that is specifically designed to absorb the particular transported chemical.

Spill kits come in various types, with different material to absorb specific spills. The kits are often also equipped with the necessary PPE to ensure that the driver can safely handle the spill.

Cargo Carriers, a transporter of petrochemicals, gives its drivers safety training in handling dangerous goods. Drivers also receive flameproof overalls, goggles, gloves and safety shoes.

To prevent its drivers from being exposed to the petrochemicals, the loading and offloading procedures are carried out in an enclosed system. Contractors are called if a spillage occurs. There are a number of organisations qualified to respond to spills that companies in the petrochemical industry can call on when a spill does occur.

By simply providing the appropriate, high-quality PPE and complying with legislation and standards, the petrochemical industry can greatly reduce its impact on the environment while still delivering its precious products.

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