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I may have the world’s record for dropping out of college. Not only did I pump gas, bus tables, flip burgers, and install windows, but I also spent some time as a “sanitation engineer” during those periods before re-enrolling yet again. I probably could have gotten to my eventual career a lot sooner, but I thought I was too smart to have to study, so I cycled through school and menial jobs repeatedly.

Whatever I lacked in common sense (too smart to study?) I made up for in work ethic. Faced with my initial janitorial assignment of mopping the 168 kilometer long corridor in the basement of the hospital, I went at it with a vengeance. I applied huge amounts of water to that floor with the mop, and I swabbed every square inch from one side to the other. About halfway through (wasn’t actually 168 km, just seemed that way), Mr. Baker appeared at the far end of the slowly drying swamp I had created. “Hey, College Boy”, Mr. Baker shouted, “don’t you know how to mop?”.

It turns out that dirt sticks to or dissolves in water. If the water is stuck to the mop, then when the mop is lifted from the floor the dirt comes with it. The water and dirt can be squeezed into the bucket. If, on the other hand, the water is left on the floor, then the dirt stays there and is re-deposited on the floor when the water evaporates. Who knew? “Hey, Mr. Baker”, I’m shouting out today, “thanks for teaching this college boy how to mop!”.

Somewhere else today, someone else is driving a fork truck, and the blades are just a bit too high off the floor. Instead of sliding into the space under a pallet, these forks are about to slide into a few boxes on the pallet, liberating some solid from the containers within the boxes, and creating a mess on the floor. Now this solid, about to be spread around where it isn’t wanted, is capable of a rapid reaction with water to release a very nasty gas. And it came out of a plain, unmarked box. No, this isn’t about undeclared Dangerous Goods, a subject which we all agree is a very bad thing. This is about undefined Dangerous Goods, for in most parts of the world this solid is not a 4.3, because the gas it gives off is ‘merely’ poisonous, and not flammable. So, after most of the spill is swept up, someone will attempt to mop up the remainder.

I’ve heard that the UN Committee of Experts intends to regulate these SWICWWRTG (Substances Which In Contact With Water Release Toxic Gas) someday, but they are waiting for the Experts on GHS to set thresholds, which can then be used for Packing Group assignments. And I’ve heard that the GHS experts, despite lots and lots of data from the USA’s Department of Transportation are stalled over test methods, with no resolution expected this biennium. And I’m wondering why neither of these sets of Experts seems to care much for janitors. Because no matter whether the janitor assigned to mop up after the spill of the SWICWWRTG mops it up properly or improperly, he deserves to be warned to expect a face full of poison gas. And yet our Experts don’t demand that he get that warning. I’m wondering if maybe some people think janitors are less important than other people.

I was a janitor.

Written 4-18-2011 for HCB Magazine