Frank Schaaf is Head Nurse at Evonik’s multi-user site in Antwerp. His approach to calculating safe-use times for coveralls used for protection against chemicals on site brings a level of understanding to an issue commonly misinterpreted in the industry, which deserves consideration by anyone involved in hazardous chemical protection.
Antwerp knows all about diamonds. It’s the rarity and the fact you have to dig through a lot of rock to find it that makes a diamond so valuable. Frank Schaaf is a similar rarity worth finding. With 25 years under his belt at Evonik in Antwerp, the last 10 of which as Head Nurse leading the team of medical staff charged with both the selection of PPE and the ongoing monitoring of more than 1,000 on-site employees, safety is both his profession and his passion. His experience in the field extends even beyond that: four years’ study at an Antwerp medical school; two years combining home-care with driving an ambulance; not to mention a one-year stint in the Belgian Army Medical Corps. For some such a long career might lead to a cynical weariness of the subject, but not Frank. The enthusiasm with which he discusses his role is evident, and with that wealth of knowledge and expertise he can speak with some authority on the subject of managing safety on a modern chemical production site. His impeccable credibility in the field is topped off with an infectious mix of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm.
In the compact but well equipped Health Centre at the Evonik site in Antwerp, Frank’s approach to the calculation of safe-use times for suits used to protect against hazardous chemicals was a revelation. He smiled at the memories of how things were when he joined the company in 1990, saying: “When I started with Evonik smoking was allowed in the offices - and even in the canteen! There was just one type of chemical suit on site for all applications and I think just three types of gloves - things have moved on a lot since then.”
And quite right too. Frank’s job now entails a complex combination of tasks focussed on maintaining the health and wellbeing of his charges: not only the regular on-site employees, but also those about to travel to (or having returned from) other Evonik sites around the world. It’s a serious business. Not only is Frank closely involved with the selection of on-site PPE, but also with regular health monitoring of all employees, including a variety of regular check-ups: annual blood tests, electro-cardiographs, eye tests, hearing tests and fitness tests – multiply all those by over 1,000 employees and you realise it is no small matter.
This reflects the corporate attitude of Evonik to the issue of employee safety. On a site that can have up to 350 chemicals in use, safety is priority number one and the uncompromising objective of the company’s policy is zero accidents. The “Safety at Evonik Programme” encourages employees to ask “am I safe if I do this job?” and if they think the answer is no each has the authority to choose not to do it until their safety issues are addressed. The aim is to encourage and enable a mind-set that anticipates what can go wrong and places the final responsibility for safety firmly in the hands of individual employees. Prevention is definitely better than cure.
Another major aspect of Frank’s job is supporting site managers to conduct risk-assessments for any task or operation involving hazardous chemicals. This includes assessing the effectiveness of chemical suit options against the chemicals in use.
Selecting chemical suits
Frank has a four-stage approach to the selection of a chemical suit for a specific task. This consists of:
- What chemicals are involved? Are they in a closed circuit system, i.e. no or little risk of contamination? What is the risk of contamination?
- Is the risk of contact routine/ inevitable? Or will contact only occur if there is an error or an equipment fault, such as a spilt valve or pipe?
- How long is any contamination of a suit likely to last?
- What is the suitability of existing on-site suit options for protection against the chemical in question, i.e. how long can a suit be used to protect against that chemical before harm may occur?