All Articles Leadership Q-and-A with CHEMTREC's Randy Speight on improving chemical safety globally

Q-and-A with CHEMTREC’s Randy Speight on improving chemical safety globally

5 min read


CHEMTREC, or the Chemical Transportation Emergency Center, “provides immediate, 24/7 critical response information for incidents involving hazardous materials” to 24,000 companies as a division of the American Chemistry Council. On Monday, CHEMTREC announced that a memorandum of understanding of mutual assistance with China’s National Registration Center for Chemicals had taken force. I asked CHEMTREC’s G. R. “Randy” Speight about what this agreement means for chemical safety, the industry and beyond.

What is the benefit of this agreement in response to hazardous materials incidents within China? Is there a benefit outside China as well?

The NRCC has positioned itself to be the prevailing provider of Level 1 Emergency Response Information in China, where Level 1 service is generally defined as the provision of product information and general advice remotely by telephone, e-mail or fax. For the benefit of CHEMTREC’s many thousands of non-Chinese customers from around the world, this memorandum of understanding joins the resources, know-how, contacts and specific product knowledge from within each of NRCC and CHEMTREC to more seamlessly optimize the mitigation of incidents involving dangerous goods — whether the incident occurs within China, or on its way to or from China, as with imported and exported goods.

And it does so equally for Chinese manufacturers and shippers who might be moving products outside of China. This type of bettered response and increased early notification is where the industry wants things to go.

CHEMTREC has been in operation for more than 40 years. How has the mission evolved over that time, and how has emergency response changed?

Indeed it has on many fronts. For example, when CHEMTREC was first set up in 1971, it was anticipated that the service was there to help out first responders who have responded to incidents in transportation. While that was true then, and continues to be no less the case today, we’ve also seen that many more of our calls for assistance are first coming even earlier in the unfolding of the incident — and that they’ve been extended to include incidents not just in transportation, but also from fixed facilities, such as from plants and distribution points.

Many calls we receive are from carrier, logistics and plant personnel, as well from members of the public who are alerting us even before the first responders have come on scene. Earlier is generally better. On another front, reliance on CHEMTREC’s assistance has grown from being just for incidents involving chemical products, to also dealing with all classes of dangerous goods, to include waste, infectious tissues, explosives and radioactive materials.

And then as far as geography is concerned, CHEMTREC’s focus in 1971 was on the United States and, on an associated basis, Canada. Today, the channels of commerce have grown to be interlaced worldwide and CHEMTREC has kept pace by offering its services on a global basis. To do so, we’ve incorporated much broader resources:

  • In 1971, most of the calls were in English. Today, CHEMTREC can handle calls in over 180 languages.
  • In 1971, CHEMTREC started out with 1,600 “CHEM-CARDS” that described the technical characteristics of the chemicals most commonly put into transportation. Today, CHEMTREC makes use of over 5 million [Material Safety Data Sheets] provided in multiple languages by its registrants worldwide.
  • In 1971, CHEMTREC was reached on one toll-free number. Today, CHEMTREC has well over 125 phone numbers that terminate in our operations center, including in-country dial numbers located in 39 countries around the world, each with welcoming greetings in local languages.

What are some of the challenges to global emergency response and how is CHEMTREC finding solutions to these challenges? Do you anticipate additional MOUs to assist in your global response initiatives?

The largest challenge as one moves globally, is the inconsistency of available emergency response resources around the world. While in North America and Western Europe, where there is generally good and ready availability of local response resources, that is not at all the case in many developing nations. Leaving aside for the moment that in many countries, the containment, cleanup and remediation personnel and resources need to be literally flown in, there also is a great lack of CHEMTREC-like centers to contact in order to provide initial notification that an incident has occurred and to seek initial guidance.

CHEMTREC’s approach to this challenge is multilayered. CHEMTREC offers its registrants a global service, which allows multinational companies to integrate what otherwise can be fragmented internal regional approaches into one common protocol. As well, CHEMTREC encourages capacity-building of other Level 1 centers around the world that are analogous to CHEMTREC by sharing best practices and advice with those jurisdictions just setting out.

And then with those countries that have put in place Level 1 centers, CHEMTREC encourages a coordinated and linked approach to incident mitigation and sharing of resources by means of memoranda of understanding for mutual assistance, as has been done with a number of other centers in South America and New Zealand, as well as most recently with the NRCC in China. Indeed, there is no reason to think that additional MOUs would not be possible.

What advice would you offer a corporate leader in another industry who would like to emulate this sort of cooperation, or develop something like CHEMTREC — an industry-led effort toward best practices in a critical area?

Only attempt it if there is real passion to make it work; make sure the objective is crystal-clear; and know who among the many and diverse stakeholders are really critical to the sustained success of the initiative. The program must be built around those objectives and stakeholders.

Without passion, the energy won’t be there. Without clarity of purpose and commitment on the part of the critical stakeholders that really matter, the initiative will never become reality.

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