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How To Minimize Exposure Risks To Ionizing Radiation While Performing Clean-Up Operations

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One particularly dreaded hazard experienced in some clean-up operations is ionizing radiation. It is invisible, odorless, silent and usually painless when it first strikes; yet, exposure to ionizing radiation can cause significant injury and long-term negative health effects. That's why workers should understand how to protect themselves if called into a situation where radiation exposure may occur during clean-up. Below is how you can keep yourself safe by minimizing exposure risks:

Ionizing radiation - what it is

Ionizing radiation is simply the release of high-velocity subatomic particles from atoms. These particles travel at enough rate of speed to remove electrons from other atoms, and this is what can cause physiological dysfunction or even death for affected plants, animals and people. However, due to its mysterious nature and dramatic depictions in entertainment and popular media, many people have a false understanding of ionizing radiation.The truth is that all living things are continuously bombarded by ionizing radiation from the sun and certain elements within the earth and its atmosphere. Fortunately, the intensity of this radiation is low enough to prevent negative health effects.

Protection from ionizing radiation

For the emergency worker who is involved in clean-up operations, the dangers posed by the presence of ionizing radiation can be mitigated by following a few sound principles which can be learned through hazwoper training:

Identify the threat or potential existence of one

Most people are able to instantly identify the yellow, three-triangle symbol as one that warns of potential radioactive hazards. Whenever you are involved in emergency operations, always keep a sharp eye open for this sign. If you see it on a door, building, or even an object, then immediately leave the area and notify your immediate supervisor of your findings.

However, keep in mind that you may not see a radioactive warning sign in all circumstances, particularly if a fire or explosion has obscured or destroyed them. That's why you must use situational awareness and be proactive when working in particular environments where radioactive materials may be in use. Some of these include:

  • Hospitals and other health care facilities

  • Metallurgical testing facilities

  • Laboratories of all kinds

  • Mineral exploration and processing operations

If you find yourself in a clean-up operation in one of these areas, be on your guard for the potential presence of radioactive materials and adopt appropriate monitoring measures as instructed by your supervisor.

Maximize the distance between yourself and the threat

Ionizing radiation is not able to travel an infinite distance. In fact, some types of ionizing radiation, such as alpha particles, are immediately stopped when encountering the bare minimum of resistance. Even the most dangerous form of radiation, gamma rays, will decrease in threat potential as distance from the source increases.

The inverse square law neatly explains the relationship between distance and exposure; for every time you double the amount of distance between yourself and the source of radiation, the amount of radiation received decreases by a factor of four. For example, if you receive 400 units of radiation while standing 10 feet from a radioactive source, then move back 10 additional feet, the dose received drops all the way down to 100 units. From a practical standpoint, this signifies that every inch of ground is significant when distancing yourself from radiation. Use robotic equipment, if available, to perform tasks within the most dangerous zones, and utilize remote monitoring technology such as drones or telescopic instruments rather than in-person observations.

Limit the amount of time exposed to the threat

Exposure to hazardous ionizing radiation isn't an all-or-none proposition. Instead, it is a cumulative phenomenon; this means the amount of potential harm suffered increases the longer you spend while working within proximity to radioactive materials. From a practical standpoint, you can work more safely by keeping in mind the following:

  • Conduct all planning outside of the work zone - once you enter the work zone, the task should be centered around conducting only the necessary operations and avoiding those that can be performed before or afterward.

  • Share the responsibility - whenever possible, work performed in a radioactive area should not be exclusively conducted by one person. Instead, multiple persons should be involved in order to decrease the amount of time that any one worker will spend inside the most hazardous areas.

  • Work with accuracy and diligence - attempt to do all work inside a radioactive area with complete focus on the task at hand and without compromising quality. Having to perform a "do over" will only increase the amount of time that will be spent in the hazard zone.