It takes a wide variety of activities – some obvious and others not so obvious – to keep electric utility operations humming along. With maintenance facilities and power plants in particular, there are sometimes unidentified exposures that grow as the facilities grow. In other scenarios, our understanding of exposures or emerging regulations requires the need for a professional hygienist to assess and remediate exposures. Ventilation surveys, which can detect ventilation system failures, are a critical but often overlooked tool that should be used to maintain safe, healthy operations, whether those are power generation operations, transmission and distribution operations, or peaker operations during which power is produced during periods of peak usage. All of these operations require appropriate ventilation to control atmospheric hazards. Failure to recognize the importance of maintaining and periodically checking ventilation systems may impart substantial hidden risk to personnel, facilities and operations.
However, it is not uncommon to see operations that lack the needed systems; are serviced by jury-rigged systems that do not meet operational needs; or are serviced by well-engineered systems that over time have fallen into disrepair due to a lack of ventilation surveys and preventive maintenance.
How is it that these matters fall between the cracks?
It is easy for occupational health to take a back seat to occupational safety or other priorities. Poor change management can be blamed if a new system is installed and there is either no follow-up or incomplete follow-up for hazard control concerns. A simple lack of subject matter expertise within an organization could be the problem; perhaps there is no knowledgeable industrial hygienist on staff and an overwhelmed safety professional wearing multiple hats gravitates away from his area of lesser expertise. In some cases, chemical exposures take years to become evident and manifest symptoms. As such, they are a lower priority than more high-visibility issues, like falls from height or arc flash. Or, it may be that ancillary activities are out of sight and out of mind, and not recognized as a priority for hazard control.
Regardless of the reason, occupational health and safety cannot be maintained without appropriate attention to ventilation matters. The purpose of this article is to shine a light on these matters and encourage organizations lacking the needed expertise to learn to handle them appropriately.