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March 01, 2007  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

When the mercury falls

by Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher


A few months ago my wife broke a fever thermometer while trying to shake it down. She used a broom to sweep up the broken glass and tiny silver orbs of the hazardous substance. Although it seemed like a good idea at the time, I later discovered that sweeping a mercury spill with a broom can actually spread the droplets.

But how many of us are prepared for a household emergency like a mercury spill? That subject is not taught in school nor is it bound by common sense. Sometimes you only learn the proper way to clean up a mercury spill after you’ve cleaned it up — improperly.

After my wife disposed of the mercury, I got on the Internet and did some research on the topic. I discovered that mercury should be cleaned up using an index card, eye dropper or duct tape, never with a broom or vacuum cleaner. In addition, you should wear rubber gloves and deposit the mercury into a plastic container with a secure lid. You should also ventilate the area and throw out any items that might have been contaminated by the mercury.

What would you do?
Which brings me to my point. How do you, as transportation professionals, prepare your staff for situations that are not explained in your policies and procedures manual?

Would your drivers know how to handle a mercury spill if a student brought a vial of it onto the bus and poured it onto the floor? That’s not such a crazy notion. A man did just that on a subway platform in Los Angeles last December. He then used a subway intercom to report the incident to transit authorities. The mercury spill was ignored for eight hours before it was handled. In the meantime, a few people noticed the mercury and reached down to touch it and at least one person stepped in it and tracked it on her shoes all the way to her home.

The incident received considerable media coverage because it awakened concerns about whether our transit systems are prepared to respond properly to more serious events — such as terrorist attacks employing a chemical or biological agent.

If we can’t handle a simple mercury spill properly, what chance do we have of mounting a quick and efficient response to the release of, say, sarin gas?

Prepared for the unexpected?
Although the subway workers in Los Angeles mishandled the mercury spill, I think a well-trained school bus driver would know what to do. He or she would probably call in the incident to dispatch and ask for guidance. If a manager could not provide that guidance immediately, the bus would likely be quarantined until information could be obtained.

If the spill took place while the bus was full of students, the driver would most likely evacuate the vehicle, making sure that passengers avoided stepping in the substance as they walked down the aisle.

The ability to recognize danger and respond properly is a critical skill that most bus drivers possess. If they don’t have it when they start driving a school bus, they develop it over the years. Bus drivers are presented with challenges ranging from mundane to extreme, mainly because they transport children who are as unpredictable as a droplet of mercury.

Let’s make sure, however, that they receive the best possible training that can be provided. In today’s unsettled world, nothing less will do.


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