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Understanding infrastructure

Industry Matters Newsletter

By: Frankie Wood-Black, Safety Expert

During the past couple of weeks, the importance and reliability of infrastructure became front and center in how we manage our day-to-day operations. Many parts of Texas saw record breaking cold temperatures combined with precipitation. Austin saw a record snowfall. Even North Dakota, Minnesota, and other northern states that do deal with these types of temperatures, saw a different problem, potential power outages due to rolling blackouts because the electrical grid was being taxed because of the overall magnitude of the situation.

Infrastructure issues present numerous issues that need to be understood, and potentially mitigated. Typically, they are minor inconveniences, one bridge is out so your trip takes a few minutes longer or a water main breaks and it has a local impact. The recent weather event gives us an opportunity to look at how infrastructure and how we build for “norms” may impact our preparedness. Think of the south in the grips of cold; homes and processing plants aren’t built for those types of temperatures. Safety showers can freeze, water pipes are not buried deeper because temperatures don’t get that low, so water mains freeze, and homes have water systems in the attic because of construction considerations due to the soil and ground conditions. These “normal” infrastructure considerations mean that these systems aren’t always designed for extreme conditions and one has to think about how those conditions might impact personal and operational safety. If the water main is frozen and there is a fire, can it be put out?

In some cases, backup systems are in place. Think generators or uninterruptable power supplies in the event of a power outage. Or, maintaining stocks of drinking water, in the event of a disruption to a water supply. Our planning needs to start thinking about other aspects of our lives and the potentials for disruptions. We have been exposed to this over the past year. Think of the toilet paper issue when the shutdowns due to COVID-19 hit. There are other signs of infrastructure breakdowns occurring. Supply changes are being impacted. If your laboratory, or hospital needs cryogenic gases for cooling of instruments or maintaining pharmaceuticals, what happens if the liquid helium or nitrogen truck doesn’t make it? What if you need personal protective equipment to run particular experiments, but now you are competing not only with emergency personnel but the general public? Do you have the critical supplies that you need?

Prior to last year, many of these considerations were very temporary. Now, there is a new concern every day. Just pick up the newspaper, lack of computer chips are shutting down or slowing some industries, the number of choices in the grocery store for particular items are reduced. This means that we have to think about our pre-plans, both personal and professional. Are the supplies going to be there if an uh-oh happens? What happens if a critical piece of infrastructure fails?

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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