What Chernobyl taught the world

Occupational health and safety officers can learn a lot about safety from the newly released HBO mini-series on the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. MARISKA MORRIS shares some of the lessons learned

American television network HBO is synonymous with good television and mostly recognised for the successful television series Game of Thrones. In its latest mini-series, Chernobyl, which aired in June, the network took a more documentary approach.

The mini-series, which consists of five one-hour episodes, is available on Showmax. It is based on the real events leading up to and after the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Pripyat, in Russia.

In 1986, one of the nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl plant blew open during a safety test and exposed the nuclear core, which leaked extreme levels of radiation into the surrounding area. As a result, many people died and the area was evacuated. Today, more than 30 years later, it is still a restricted zone with high levels of radiation.

Director Johan Renck undertook extensive research to ensure that this mini-series portrays the real-life events leading up to the meltdown and the aftermath as accurately as possible. The Chernobyl series follows the lives of everyone involved in the disaster, the decisions made, the impact on the community and the actions taken to minimise harm.

While the series is a “must watch” for many reasons, professionals in the occupational health and safety (OHS) industry will enjoy the safety undertone that runs throughout the series – from provision of the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) to preventing the spread of radiation.

Chernobyl also offers incredible insights into some of the biggest challenges facing OHS officers. Here are some of the key lessons to be learned from the series.

Know the dangers

Ensuring the adequate safety of employees requires knowledge about all the potential hazards in the workplace. When the reactor blew open at Chernobyl, a fire broke out. Emergency services were called to respond. At the time, authorities were unaware of the true levels of radiation.

While the firefighters wore their traditional fire-retardant clothing, they were not protected against the radiation. All of them died within a few weeks. It can be argued that, in an area where there is a nuclear power plant, the firefighters should have been provided with PPE to protect against radiation – no matter the expected level – or at least have been trained and notified of the hazards.

When the ill firefighters arrived at the hospital, a nurse realised they were sick as a result of radiation exposure and immediately arranged for the disposal of all their clothes and had the firefighters placed in isolation. If she had not been aware of the potential hazard and how to respond appropriately, there might have been many more deaths, as hospital staff would have been exposed to additional radiation.

OHS officers can use this as a lesson in the importance of knowing the potential hazards in the workplace. Inspections of existing or new work environments can assist officers to identify any potential hazards and adequately prepare staff to ensure their safety.

PPE is a best friend

The incident at Chernobyl highlighted the importance of adequate PPE in the workplace. The equipment should be fit for purpose or it might not offer any protection. At a later stage in the series, a group of men enter the power plant wearing appropriate PPE. Those men lived to an old age, despite entering an area with very high levels of radiation.

The series also draws attention to the fact that PPE should be comfortable. A group of miners were called to the power plant to assist in minimising the potential spread of radiation. While authorities did provide them with adequate PPE, the work environment below the power station was too hot, so they decided not to wear it.

Supplying equipment is not enough. It needs to offer adequate protection and be comfortable to wear in the specific work environment, or injuries could occur as staff refuse to wear it – even if they are aware of the hazards.

Communication and information are power

Communicating the correct information to staff is key to ensuring their safety in the workplace. When the meltdown occurred at Chernobyl, those in charge spread misinformation about the level of radiation, as they believed it was impossible for a reactor to blow open.

There were also no adequate channels for staff on the ground (who were aware of the severity of the situation) to communicate properly with management. Various employees on the ground tried to warn management that the nuclear core was exposed, but management failed to listen.

It is important for employees to be able to properly inform the OHS officers, or management, about potential hazards in the workplace.

Buy in from everyone

While there were numerous small errors that led to the meltdown, the decisions made by management had the biggest impact on the disaster. Those in charge decided to run a safety test, despite knowing that there were potential risks involved. While management was under the impression that it was safe to do this at the time, the test and the potential risks taken, were unnecessary.

It is important for safety to be a priority for all staff. Employees should also follow safety protocol, while management should have safety in mind when making any decisions that could impact on the well-being of employees.

Pressure leading to unsafe actions

A big contributor to the meltdown at Chernobyl was the pressure placed on staff from top management. Their demand for results in a short timeframe resulted in some questionable decision-making – something that would not have taken place if the staff had not been placed under pressure.

While every business wants to see results from efficient employees, there should never be a compromise on safety. Employees should feel that they can decline to undertake a task if it would put their lives in danger.

OHS officers can assist by supporting employees to raise safety concerns; reiterating the importance of making safety a priority; and sharing with management the risks of putting pressure on staff.

Only skilled workers on the front line

Aside from the pressures that led to the poor decision-making at Chernobyl, the staff were unskilled. While they had adequate knowledge and training to qualify them to work at the power plant, many had only worked there for a short period of time.

They were ill-prepared to undertake the safety test and more experience could, arguably, have made all the difference. It is important for businesses to ensure that only skilled, experienced employees attempt dangerous tasks. Skilled employees can always transfer their knowledge to new employees, but the unskilled or inexperienced staff should never be left to fend for themselves.

There is so much more to learn from the nuclear power plant meltdown and what better way to gain some insights than with a visual representation of the events. Chernobyl is a definite “must watch” for anyone involved in OHS.

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SHEQ Management

SHEQ MANAGEMENT is the definitive source for reliable, accurate and pertinent information to guarantee environmental health and safety in the workplace.
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