Archive for the ‘Equipment Failure’ Category

Protecting Against the Risk of Carbon Monoxide Exposure

Friday, January 29th, 2016
Losing Oxygen

Losing Oxygen

Carbon monoxide is often called the “silent killer” as it is an odorless and colorless gas that is the product of fuel combustion. Approximately 430 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning, mostly as a result of carbon monoxide inhalation while sleeping. Low-level carbon monoxide exposure can result in symptoms, such as headaches and nausea.  There are basic measures that you can take to protect against the risk of carbon monoxide exposure.

Reduce the risk that carbon monoxide gas levels will increase in closed areas. Certain appliances that produce carbon monoxide should only be used outside in well-ventilated areas, such as back-up generators and gas and charcoal grills for cooking. Fuel-burning appliances that are used inside the home and office, such as furnaces, cooking appliances and clothes washers and dryers, for example, must be properly maintained. Ensure that when carbon monoxide is produced, it does not accumulate in an enclosed or sealed area, raising the risk of poisoning. If you warm your car or use a remote starter, remove it from the garage before starting it. Verify that the exhaust pipe of a running vehicle is not blocked by snow or ice. During and after a snow storm, make sure that the vents for your furnace, stove, fireplace and dryer are clear of snow and ice accumulation.

Install carbon monoxide detectors and understand how to use them. Install carbon monoxide detectors outside each sleeping area and on every level of your home and office and in other locations as required by local codes. It is best to interconnect all of the alarms through the home or office, such that when one sounds the alert, they all do. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for proper mounting of the detectors. The alerts issued by carbon monoxide and smoke detectors can be distinguished from one another – when the alarm sounds four times, that indicates carbon monoxide has been detected; three times means that smoke has been detected. A chirping noise may suggest that the battery power is low, so check it right away. If the chirping continues, call for help. Test your alarms monthly and replace the batteries when you change the clocks in the fall and spring seasons. Carbon monoxide detectors have a lifespan of about five to seven years, so be sure to replace them as needed.

Understand how to call for help should you suspect carbon monoxide exposure. As part of your business continuity planning, you should have on hand the non-emergency number of the fire department to call should the carbon monoxide detector sound an alert. If you hear the alert, evacuate the area by going to a fresh air location outside of the property. Be sure that everyone has safely exited the property. Once safely outside, call the fire department for help. Do not open the windows or switch off the appliances in the area as the fire department will need to examine them to determine the source of the carbon monoxide leak. And, in connection with your business resilience planning, share this information with your employees so they may ensure that their families and homes remain safe.

Invisible Hazard: Carbon Monoxide

Thursday, January 28th, 2016
Losing Oxygen

Losing Oxygen

According to the Small Business Administration, there are 23 million small businesses in the United States, of which 52 per cent operate in the homes of their owners. The benefits include reduced overhead costs and improved quality of life. But this arrangement is not without risk and, as I discovered, unknown hazards in my live-work space presented life-threatening risks to which I was exposed sometimes in excess of 20 hours daily.

I rented a two-story, two-bedroom town home condominium with an option to purchase it. The property appeared run-down for lack of proper care, but I did not appreciate how dangerous it was until I had a home inspection performed. The landlord had presented me with his purchase and sales agreement that stipulated “no inspection – as is”, a very big red flag. As the legal right to a pre-purchase home inspection cannot be waived, and as I had not (and never did) sign the purchase and sales agreement, I decided to have a home inspection performed in the property where I had lived as a tenant.

I hired a well-regarded military veteran who is a “Certified Master Inspector”, one of only five people in the state to have attained that level of professional standing. He spent a day at the property and produced a 49-page report identifying serious violations of the housing code. These violations represented threats to my health and safety and to the health and safety of the other building residents. He found multiple sources of carbon monoxide leaks and the absence of carbon monoxide detectors, as required by state law. With respect to the latter hazard, there were detectors in the home that appeared to be dual-use smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, but they were mis-labeled. The units detected only smoke. Or, I should say, they would have detected smoke if they were working – they were over ten years old and not functioning. I was unaware of that hazard. I had no way of determining the age of the smoke detectors (the home inspector did) and as I had replaced the units with fresh batteries, I believed all was well.

Many of the housing code violations were not visible to me, making this home inspection a good investment as it helped me avoid serious problems that would result from purchasing the property. The home inspector found that the water heater exhaust pipe had improper pitch and was not properly sealed. This condition caused the back flow of combustion air that prevented the system from heating the water as it was designed to do. The perforations in the exhaust pipe discharged carbon monoxide into the living space. We contacted the manufacturer of the water heater and after checking the serial number of the appliance, learned that the property owner had installed the water heater himself. The city housing inspector confirmed that the property owner/landlord had done this work without the legally required permit.

Because the city had not issued a permit, the city inspectors were unaware that the work had been done and so did not inspect the heater after the installation, as is their practice. The landlord had told me that the water heater had only recently been installed, just before I moved in. According to the records of the manufacturer, the installation had been performed eight years prior, meaning that previous tenants (and one was a divorced man with three children) also experienced chronic exposure to carbon monoxide without being aware of the risks.

My primary physician, upon learning this information, ordered tests to check the levels of lead and carbon monoxide in my blood. As I don’t work in a profession that exposes me to toxic environmental risks, and as Rhode Island has laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in all residential properties, my physician had ruled out possible carbon monoxide exposure as the cause of my malaise.  As someone who works in the field of risk management/insurance, I was embarrassed to find myself in this situation. I was stunned to learn that Rhode Island does not require rental permits or property inspections prior to leasing a residence. And I learned that over the past ten years, the tenants living in the property had all kinds of problems. According to my doctor, while you can improve your symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure after a walk in the fresh air, the signs of the exposure can be detected for some time thereafter through blood tests.

Enabling your business to be disaster-resilient requires time and care to the safety of your home and the homes of your employees. You cannot give your full attention to the business if you are worried about the safety of your home and family. And if you work from a home office, you have an additional risk factor to consider, one that is more difficult to manage if you lease, rather than own, the property.

Seasonal Elevated Risk of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016
Losing Oxygen

Losing Oxygen

A recent news story highlights that the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is elevated during the winter season due to the operation of unsafe heating systems. The news story reported that earlier this week, nearly 50 people were hospitalized for carbon monoxide poisoning after they attended an event at an East Providence social club. The chirping of the carbon monoxide alarm alerted the guests to the hazard.

The East Providence social club had carbon monoxide detectors installed, even though it was not legally required to do so. The fire department determined that the levels of carbon monoxide in the air were 300 parts per million, sufficiently elevated to cause headaches and nausea. The carbon monoxide had been released into the building from the blocked air vent of a gas-fired boiler that was overdue for cleaning. This story caught my attention as, in an unrelated incident, I was also exposed to elevated levels of carbon monoxide. I learned lessons from that experience that I would like to share with the small business community.

Lesson #1: Your state’s requirements for the installation of carbon monoxide detectors may apply only to residential buildings.

The National Fire Protection Association Life Safety Code requires that carbon monoxide (CO) detectors be installed in residential buildings, such as single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, dormitories, hotels, etc. The reasoning behind this requirement is that each year, approximately 430 people die of CO poisoning; most of the deaths occur at night when people inhale CO during their sleep. That is why local codes typically require that CO detectors be placed in bedrooms as well as in utility rooms where gas-fired appliances are located.

The Code does not apply to commercial facilities as officials believe that people exposed to CO would be awake and alert at their place of work and should they experience headaches or other symptoms of CO poisoning, they would seek help in a timely manner.  I disagree with this line of reasoning. While people might be awake and alert while experiencing headaches and nausea, they might not recognize that such symptoms may be the result of carbon monoxide exposure. People working longer hours might have longer exposures as they would not be leaving the facility to inhale fresh air at the end of the 8-hour shift.

Chronic, low-level poisoning, while usually not fatal, can cause other adverse effects. In the absence of CO detectors, the business owner remains unaware of the hazard. To ensure your safety and that of your employees and visitors, do more than you are legally required to do.   Install carbon monoxide detectors in your workplace.

Lesson #2: The risk of carbon monoxide exposure increases during the winter season.

You are at elevated risk of carbon monoxide poisoning during the cold weather. During the winter months, people increase their use of heating systems and keep their windows closed and their homes tightly sealed. Be certain to perform the recommended annual cleaning of gas-fired appliances (such as your boiler or furnace, cooking appliances, dryer) to mitigate this risk. Cars and trucks are also sources of possible carbon monoxide exposure, particularly during the winter months. People may start their cars in their garages, keeping the garage doors closed to avoid the cold until they are ready to leave, or have the engine running by the use of a remote starter in a closed garage. The carbon monoxide that is discharged from the tail pipe accumulates in the closed garage (which typically does not have a carbon monoxide detector) can be lethal. Another source of exposure in the car arises from snow and ice packed against the tail pipe such that carbon monoxide levels build up in the car as the motorist runs the engine to stay warm.

Lesson #3: After a suspected case of carbon monoxide exposure, exit the building, but leave it as is for the fire department to properly evaluate the hazards.

If your carbon monoxide detector sounds the alarm or if you experience symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning, evacuate the building and call the fire department. Do not open the windows to air the place out or turn off the appliances. These actions will prevent the fire department from evaluating the hazards. The firemen will wear oxygen masks for their own safety while they work to identify the source of the leak and take the necessary corrective measures. If you open the windows or turn off the boiler before they arrive, you may unwittingly delay the time until you can safely return to the property.

Lesson #4: Some states may not require inspections to protect the tenants.

Prior to leasing a property in most states, the owner is required to obtain a rental permit that will be issued only after a satisfactory inspection of the property by city officials. If the inspector finds any hazards that could discharge carbon monoxide or if the required carbon monoxide detectors are missing, the owner must correct them and submit to a follow-up inspection before he may lease the property. The tenant has some assurance that the property is safe for occupancy. But, as I have learned the hard way, not all states require rental permits or some type of home inspection to protect tenants. In Rhode Island, for example, a property owner must submit to a city inspection in order to sell the property. The title to the property cannot be conveyed until the fire marshal has completed the inspection and the identified deficiencies have been corrected. But the owner can rent a Rhode Island property, even if it is not safe for occupancy.

In the next blog posting in this series, I will share with you the lessons I learned the hard way about carbon monoxide exposure. In the third and final posting, I will offer some tips to ensure the safety of your home and your business.


Tragic Example of Equipment Failure

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

No Single Point of FailureIn our framework for disaster risk, we place equipment failure in the “high frequency/low severity” category, an example of “everyday” disasters.  But the consequences of everyday disasters can be devastating, even when the source of the failure is trivial. A tragic example of equipment failure occurred when a freezer malfunction damaged one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples. The loss could set back brain research by decades. The collection was critical to the research of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center.

The Boston Globe reports that the freezer, which was located in the McLean Psychiatric Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, shut down in late May. The damage was not detected in a timely manner. The freezer is protected by two separate alarm systems and as an additional precaution, staff checked the external thermostat twice daily to verify that the brain tissue samples were stored at minus 80 degrees Celsius. But while the thermostat registered minus-79 degrees, a safe range to store the brain samples, the actual temperature was 7 degrees. The freezer area is securely locked and monitored by surveillance cameras. An internal investigation into the incident is underway.

This tragic loss, despite the multiple layers of protection in place, should prompt all of us to stop and think: can you identify the equipment critical to your small business operations? What measures have you put in place to protect it?

Cost-Effective Preparedness Solutions

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Forbes has posted an interesting commentary piece on the critical need small businesses have of cost-effective disaster preparedness solutions. Because small businesses cannot diversify their risks, they are more vulnerable to disasters than big businesses and have fewer resources from which to rebuild.  In the first edition of Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses, Stefan wrote that while network failures are relatively rare, the network is a good first test of how far contingency planning has progressed. He added, “When someone tells you that their network is completely protected and fail-safe, tell them that you would come over to their office and ‘pull the plug’ on any one network cable. Observe their response!” So I really enjoyed Forbes’ account of one small businessperson who, in a live test for his management, unplugged a file server and then walked over to his desk to manually trigger a failover to the remote copy. That’s confidence! Check out the article. It is a good read.

The High Cost of Discounted Goods

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009
Bright and Shiny, But Not Necessarily Inexpensive

Bright and Shiny, But Not Necessarily Inexpensive

In Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses (Wiley, second edition, 2008), I advise readers that it is always best to purchase the current versions of computer hardware for their small businesses. Rarely is it cost-effective to purchase an earlier model of hardware for the reduction in price. Recent discount offerings by major retailers, such as Circuit City, have prompted readers to ask me if I would like to revise my original advice. After all, with major retailers discounting their inventory by 80% in bankruptcy sales, doesn’t this represent a great opportunity for small businesses to save some money on their purchases? The answer is: no, not necessarily. Consider the purchase of a computer printer. The printer’s functionality is dependent of the hardware (the printer itself) and the software (the printer driver which delivers instructions from your computer to the printer). Whenever the computer operating system is upgraded, the manufacturer of the printer must write software for the new printer driver, which they typically make available for free download. Now you see the competing needs of two different business models.

The manufacturers of computer operating systems generate revenues from software licensing fees, which are like an annuity stream. But the hardware manufacturers only earn revenue at the point of sale: when you purchase their printer. If they have to keep writing and distributing new printer driver software every time the operating system is upgraded, they incur open-ended and unlimited costs. They could invest substantial amounts of resources in supporting obsolete hardware to keep up with software upgrades. That is why hardware manufacturers limit their support to a fixed period of time, typically a year or two. So that discounted printer model you purchase at the online auction or the bargain basement may appear inexpensive. But then you attempt to set it up and find that you don’t have a current printer driver to make it work optimally with your computer system. Then the cheap printer becomes an incredibly expensive paperweight. So I am sticking with my original position: it is generally best for small businesses to invest in the current models of computer hardware, irrespective of retailer discounting.

Emotions and Redundancy

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009
Aircraft Lifted Onto the Barge

Aircraft Lifted Onto the Barge

Following an earlier blog entry, over the weekend, the aircraft for USAirways Flight 1549 was lifted by cranes from the Hudson River where it had submerged and was then placed on a barge for subsequent transport to an area better suited for a long-term investigation. You will note that it is directly adjacent to the World Trade Center site, in the residential community of Battery Park City, where I lived on and after 9-11-01. I am viewing these events from a different vantage point, from directly on the Hudson River on the New Jersey waterfront exactly opposite of where I used to live. The emergency workers have been on duty round the clock, with police boats, helicopters and the Coast Guard maintaining a visible presence. While this accident was thankfully unrelated to the events of 9-11-01, for the residents of this neighborhood, the presence of emergency workers has a certain emotional resonance and frankly, I am glad I am more removed from the scene of the action this time. I had written earlier about dealing with emotions following a disaster, so just knowing that the sight of the police boats and Coast Guard craft were likely to provoke a response from me gave me the ability to mute that response. This is an important insight for anyone who has worked through a major disaster and thankfully, this one ended with no loss of human life.

Drawing on another theme of our preparedness messages, the role of redundant systems is critical. Although the investigation into the cause of the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 has just begun, investigators have already revealed that both engines of the aircraft failed simultaneously. When I lived in Zurich, Switzerland, I would often take short, over-land so-called “City Hopper” flights to London or elsewhere for business. Those aircraft were equipped with four engines, consistent with European safety regulations, rendering negiligible the risk of simultaneous engine failure for all. That safety standard exists in the U.S. only for military aircraft and of course, for cargo aircraft, the redundancy required to mitigate the risk of equipment failure is still lower. As small business owners, the lessons we can draw from this accident include (1) the importance of redundancy to mitigate the risk of equipment failure, (2) the critical importance of employee training as demonstrated by the flawless performance of the airplane pilot and (3) the issues surrounding emotional responses post-disaster.

Tech Frustration

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, failures of communication devices are quite common. Over the past year, among more than 2,000 adults surveyed:

•    44% of home Internet users experienced at least one connection failure;
•    39% of computer users experienced at least one hardware failure;
•    29% of cell phone users experienced at least one failure of their phones;
•    26% of those who use Blackberries, Palm Pilots or other personal digital assistants reported at least one device failure; and
•    15% of those who use iPods or MP3 players experienced at least one incident in which the device did not work properly.

Individual consumers were selected for polling in this particular survey, but it is reasonable to assume that a survey of small business owners would yield similar results. Consumers who use the Internet, computers, cell phones and other devices may report frustration with periodic failures of equipment, but for small businesses, the consequences of equipment failure are more serious. Mitigate your risk as part of your overall disaster planning:

•    Make sure that you have service level guarantees and appropriate support for your equipment purchases.
•    Train your users in the proper use of equipment. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project also reported that 48% of adults who use the Internet or a cell phone need assistance in setting up and using new devices. This calls for an investment in proper installation and use.
•    Finally, build in redundancy to cope with the device failures that will inevitably happen. In Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses (John Wiley & Sons Inc., second edition, 2008), I recommend, for example, that you keep spare hardware in your inventory to immediately replace failed equipment.

“Tim the IT Guy” had an interesting take on the reported need for assistance in setting up computers and cell phones: fire the IT support team and hire only employees who are tech-savvy.  Or you could do as I do and invest in training upfront as IT personnel are too expensive to be used for desk-side hand-holding.

Illustrating a Lesson

Thursday, September 11th, 2008
Look carefully to see what is not obvious

Look carefully to see what is not obvious

I recently did a live radio interview with Tron Simpson of KCMN-AM in Colorado Springs, which took me back to my last visit to Colorado Springs a few months ago. The occasion was the annual small business awards luncheon hosted by the local Small Business Development Center. I was flattered to have been invited as the keynote speaker and after the luncheon, I led a three-hour workshop on small business disaster preparedness. I had been invited by Matt Barrett, the Director of the SBDC. Matt and Assistant Director Lisanne McNew were most gracious hosts. On my return home after the program, I had an experience that perfectly illustrates the concept of everyday disasters and the importance of having good processes in place.

My return flight departed Colorado Springs for Dallas-Fort Worth, where I had to make a connecting flight back to the New York City area. As we passed over Kansas, I heard a loud pop and the cabin rapidly lost pressure. Passengers became nauseated as we were jostled about in our seats like beans frying in a pan. Shortly thereafter, the pilot announced that we were returning to the airport in Denver where better aircraft maintenance facilities were available and, if necessary, alternate flight connections.  I had many hours in the airport terminal to make the acquaintance of my fellow passengers, as we had been instructed to remain in the gate area. Of course, everyone asked everyone else about the purpose of their travel and I mentioned my book and the event in Colorado Springs. Then one of the passengers who was seated next to the emergency exit door where the seal had broken (that was the “pop” we had heard) stated that he had suspected a problem as soon as he took his seat. He reported to the cabin crew that he could hear a hissing noise through the door. His concerns were dismissed. But as the aircraft pulled back from the jetway and towards the runway, the hissing sounds grew more ominous, particularly after takeoff as we gained altitude. In the context of the six disaster categories outlined in Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best, we all agreed that this was an example of equipment failure.

When I related the details to Stefan, he offered a different diagnosis. Stefan has a degree in Aerospace Engineering and he told me that aircraft always have multiple redundant systems to protect against the risk of a single failure. At least three things had to go wrong simultaneously with that flight in order to account for our experience. The risk of any single one occurring in isolation is small; the risk of all three striking simultaneously is negligible. Stefan diagnosed the problem as human error; the issue around the faulty seal should have set off an alarm in the cockpit. Perhaps the pilot was fatigued and did not notice. The pre-flight mechanical inspection should have surfaced the problem. It appeared that either the airline did not have proper procedures in place, which seems unlikely, or, more likely, the procedures were in place and they were not followed.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

By the way, in case you are wondering about the photographs that accompany this blog post, I took them at a local site in Colorado Springs, the Garden of the Gods. Matt was kind enough to show me this beautiful natural setting when he drove me back to the airport. Matt spotted a deer, which sought to hide itself behind the trees, while I did my best to get a picture. If you look at the “V” shape between the main branches of the tree trunk, you can see the deer’s eyes, ears and nose. Sometimes you have to look very carefully to see beyond the obvious.