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For Whom Does the Alarm Toll?

Industry Matters Newsletter
Ken Fivizzani, Safety Expert
Ken Fivizzani, Safety Expert

Our lives are filled with the sound of alarms. Have you ever had to search around your house to find the source of an alarm? Some of the trickiest alarms to locate are low battery signals on smoke and/or CO detectors or other power sources like security systems. An alarm that is difficult to locate has lost most of its value. Where is the problem? How serious is the problem? What am I supposed to do about it?

In dealing with the overabundance of alarms, we must identify those alarms that warn us of a condition endangering our health or having the potential to damage property. New employees should be instructed about the meaning and significance of alarms that may ring in the workplace. The most important alarm is usually the alarm to evacuate the area. Although such alarms are commonly called “fire alarms,” there may be other reasons to evacuate.

Researchers in one lab encountered a leaking cylinder of hydrogen; they decided it was important to get everyone out of the building. They met the responders outside of the area to advise them that hydrogen was the hazard. In any case, employees and visitors must always evacuate the area immediately upon hearing the alarm; there is no excuse for a delayed response.

You may have specialized alarms in your work environment. There may be an alarm if the lab ventilation system goes down or if specific hazardous materials (hydrogen sulfide, chlorine, carbon monoxide) are detected in the air. Again, understanding what the alarm means and quick action are crucial. How do you learn about weather emergencies in the area? Where are you supposed to go (not to the window)?

Visiting another facility requires some orientation about alarms. Ask the local employees about alarms and how you should respond. Very general advice is to note the warning sound and do what the local employees do. One researcher heard a loud whistle and saw the employees all walking very quickly in the same direction. He followed their example and was rewarded with a good position in the lunch line in the dining hall!

In a manufacturing or pilot plant facility, there are numerous warning sounds, including pressure relief valves, machines turning on and off, water flowing, and general rumbling on the ground or in the air. Pay attention to unusual sounds. Cars, trucks, electric carts, bicycles, and forklifts are everywhere. Backup alarms constantly warn of moving vehicles often where you do not expect to see them.    

The safety features of automobiles have improved tremendously in recent years. Many of the features have visual or audible alarms. The Blind Spot Monitor (BSM) deserves a safety Nobel Prize. Looking in the outside rear view mirrors, an indicator light informs you if a car is in your blind spot. If the turn signal is operated, the light blinks. The Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA) shows a light and sounds a buzzer if a vehicle is approaching from the right or left rear. The Pre-Collision System (PCS) sounds a buzzer, flashes a warning and actually applies the brakes if the system determines a high possibility of a frontal collision with a vehicle or pedestrian. With dynamic radar cruise control, the vehicle automatically accelerates, decelerates, and stops to match the speed changes of the car in front of the vehicle.   

In 2015, while test driving a car with Lane Departure Alert (LDA), I asked the salesman “Will this car chime every time I change lanes without signaling?” “Yes, sir.” “I’m a safety guy, but this would drive me crazy.” Four years later, my new car has LDA (you can turn it off now) and I really like it. It chimes whenever the car moves over a lane marker (with no turn signal) which for me is usually for sudden changes like debris or an animal in my lane of traffic. A gentle reminder that my precautionary “safe” maneuver may be risking an accident in the adjacent lane.

Pay attention to alarms whenever and wherever you hear them. Know what each alarm means and how you should respond. The alarm tolls for you.

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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