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Protecting Industrial Workers from Radiation

Ever since a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, damaged the Fukushima Daiichi power plant and led to some occupational radiation exposure, the subject of protecting industrial workers from radiation has become a hot-button issue – an issue that safety professionals cannot in good conscience look past.

Technological advances have helped industrial hazard protections reach new levels of sophistication, with developments that include cutting-edge fall protection equipment, anti-scratch safety glasses and gadgets like robots that bring a whole new sense of safety. Less sophisticated systems, meanwhile, largely have been left behind.

It is important, however, to remember that we cannot throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater as some “unsophisticated” protective measures remain valid. One of these, the ALARA principle, remains the most simple and effective principle of worker protection from radiation.

The ALARA Principle

The ALARA (as low as reasonably possible) principle is a widely used and effective method of controlling exposure to radioactive material. ALARA represents the concept of limiting employee radiation exposure to levels as low as possible.

The principle consists of three basic components of protection: 1) limiting the time of exposure; 2) maintaining an as-far-as-feasible distance from radiation sources; and 3) shielding from radiation. Although the application may vary depending on the specific exposure, the ALARA concept is applicable to any process that involves exposure or potential exposure to radiation.

Limiting the Time of Exposure

The first aspect of controlling exposure to radiation is limiting the time of exposure. This is accomplished through adequate planning both from a production and safety analysis point of view. With proper planning, worker rotations can be scheduled to limit exposure to any one employee, and the project can be divided into smaller portions in order to limit exposure.

Proper planning also allows for potential concerns regarding production and safety to be identified and mitigated, thus allowing for a more efficient operation.

A Safe Distance

Next, the ALARA Principle calls for maintaining a distance from the hazard that is as far as feasible.

In order for distances of diminished exposure to be established, appropriate radiation-level monitoring must take place. After monitoring is performed, establishing a perimeter outside of the exposure zone in which non-essential and non-shielded persons are prohibited from entering will effectively limit employee exposure.

Mandating that employees maintain a safe distance from radiation sources through the utilization of these controlled access zones will go far in preventing exposure.

Shielding from Radiation

The final component to be implemented in the ALARA principle is shielding persons who may be exposed to the radiation.

In the same manner that the use of personal protective equipment must follow the utilization of engineering and administrative controls, shielding employees follows the aforementioned controls of limiting exposure and maintaining a safe distance. The method of shielding will be determined by the specific type and amount of radiation; however, as a rule, the material used will be the densest material as available.

While new, sophisticated methods and equipment might offer the promise of improved safety performance, sometimes it’s the old standby techniques – such as limiting exposure, maintaining distance and shielding – that best create a solid foundation for worker safety.

EHS Today guest blogger Jason Townsell was named the 2010 Future Leader in EHS. He works as an assistant safety manager/trainer for LA World Airports (LAWA) Airport Development Group.

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