A tragic work-related accident claimed the lives of Michael Beliakov and Moshe Tal last week, at the Paz Refineries facility in Ashdod. Both men died of hydrogen sulfide gas poisoning, shedding light on the fact that despite technological advances and regulatory efforts, Israeli workers are still exposed to life-threatening materials on a daily basis.
Was there a way to avoid the tragedy at Paz Refineries? Could such work accidents be solely the result of human error, or does the law clearly define how to avoid such accidents, who should monitor such hazardous materials and who, within the industrial sector, are supposed to enforce the law and look out for employee safety?
Hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S) is a colorless gas with a distinct foul odor, caused naturally as part of the decomposition process of organic compounds that contain sulfur. Despite being highly flammable as well as toxic, it is used in various production processes and can even be found in sewer systems, as it is also the result of waste treatment.
H2S is considered extremely hazardous, and as such it is included in Israel's Hazardous Material Law, which was enacted in 1993.
Beliakov and Tal died after apparently being exposed to its fumes and while it is possible that its distinct odor could have been a warning sign, those used to it may become dangerously oblivious to the risk.
Much like in the case of cyanide gas, if hydrogen sulfide is inhaled, it causes a myriad of health problems, from a respiratory irritation – in cases involving law dosage exposure – through fatigue, dizziness and pneumonia, to loss of consciousness and even death, as was the case in Ashdod.
Like all other materials included in the Hazardous Material Law, the possession of H2S requires a permit, but in many places, H2S is created as a byproduct and since it is not stored, it does not require a permit. This means that it is up to the specific facility to recognize the risk and take the necessary precautions to protect both the employees and the environment.
Currently, there are two ministries that monitor the possession and use of hazardous materials: The Environmental Protection Ministry and the Labor Trade and Industry Ministry; and organizations must adhere to both ministries' standards and regulations on storage, inventory, employee training and emergency contingences, if they wish to stock such materials.
The Environmental Protection Ministry handles environmental enforcement, imposing hefty fines on facilities that fail to adhere to those criteria; while the Labor Ministry enforces employee safety guidelines. Failing to meet the latter is considered a criminal offense which is punishable by jail time. The ministry can also suspend a facility's activity.
Still, the legislation covers only a fraction of the risk management needed in facilities housing hazardous materials; and it pays little attention to byproducts, which are not stored. This vacuum essentially leaves facilities to their own devices on the matter.
Israel must expand the legislation to obligate employers to perform risk assessment and management – in a manner that identifies and monitors risks – including those caused by byproducts; it must clearly define an organization's responsibility and create the infrastructure for a more extensive, internal enforcement mechanism, as well as defining the infrastructure for enforcement by the State.
Such steps would contribute greatly to increased awareness and enforcement, as well as decrease the number of similar accidents and save lives.
Sigalit Shahar, M.Occ.H, is head of the Industry and Environment division at Hazmat Ltd