Workers in manufacturing, waste management, mining, gas extraction and construction industries may be at risk of being exposure to radioactive materials. Many of these exposures are unexpected or inadvertent. OSHA has outlined training courses in hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER); this education is required for certain employers and employees who may find themselves in a role of managing emergencies involving radioactive substances, and may be an excellent additional training course for emergency personnel who could respond to these types of incidents. HAZWOPER online training is an option for workers to get the education they need conveniently and apply it quickly.
Radioactive elements are those elements which have an unstable nucleus at the center of their atoms. These unstable nuclei decay, emitting particles and energy as they do so. The rate of decay is measured as a “half-life.” This is the length of time it would take for half the atoms in a given amount of a substance to disintegrate. There does not seem to be a limit on how long or short a half-life can be. Atoms have been created in the Large Hadron Collider with nearly instantaneous half-lives, while tellurium-128 decays very slowly with its half-life that is longer than the age of universe.
All life on this planet is exposed constantly to a low dose of constant radiation in the environment, which is known as background radiation. Background radiation comes from natural sources such as radioactive elements in the soil, cosmic elements such as the sun and artificial elements like medical equipment.
Radioactive materials found at industrial sites can be classified as Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) and Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM).
NORM elements are present naturally in the Earth’s crust all over the planet. Common examples of NORM are radium, potassium, barium or cobalt deposits within the Earth. These contribute to the background radiation of an area and can be brought forth when the crust is disturbed during mining or gas and oil extraction processes.
A special consideration for NORM is radon, which is present in the soil of some areas of the USA in high enough concentrations to be dangerous when inhaled; this element may be pervasive in the basements of buildings of any age in those areas with high soil levels of radon. Special testing kits to determine whether radon is present in a closed space at dangerous levels are available through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
TENORM refers to radioactive elements which have been further processed or concentrated by human means; many industrial waste products are considered TENORM. Oil and gas production, fertilizer production, and mining industries often produce TENORM substances which are destined for disposal or recycling. Residue from coal combustion, which is present in many industrial sites, can be a source of TENORM. TENORM can affect populated areas in an emergency, as the waste from municipal water processing, wastewater processing, and energy production often include these radioactive substances. Geothermal electrical production in particular can place the surrounding area at risk for TENORM accumulation, as temperature changes can cause precipitation of radioactive solids.
The danger and effects of direct exposure to radioactive elements will depend upon the type and duration of exposure. Skin exposure can cause burns, redness, or hair loss; radioactive energy waves are also small enough to penetrate the cells and damage DNA.
Acute, or short term, exposure to high levels of radiation can cause illness and death within hours. However, chronic exposure to low levels of radiation that are higher than typical background levels can cause slowly accumulating damage leading to an increased cancer risk and high incidence of birth abnormalities. Because radiation damage is irreversible, radiation exposure is considered to be cumulative over a lifetime. Radioactive particles are odorless and invisible; it is therefore imperative that workers at risk for chronic radiation exposure do not become complacent in protection.
The danger of exposure to radioactive materials can be mitigated through distancing oneself from the source, containment or isolation of the source of radiation, or through protective clothing and special respirators to prevent physical contact and inhalation of radioactive particles.
There are several available types of HAZWOPER courses tailored to the needs of workers in specific roles and industries. All HAZWOPER-certified personnel are also required to take regular continuing education courses to ensure that they are consistently following current best practices.