The Role of AI in Hazmat Response

6 Jul 2024

Artificial intelligence (AI) excels at analyzing data accurately and efficiently. While those advantages apply to virtually any industry, high-risk working environments may benefit from them more than most. Hazmat response is one of the more niche but promising use cases for this technology.

What Is Hazmat Response?

Hazmat response refers to the management of incidents involving hazardous materials. OSHA recognizes over 130 of these chemicals, all of which require proper handling, storage, and emergency response procedures. While preventing an accident with these materials is best, businesses must have a formal plan for addressing safety incidents if they arise.

These response plans typically follow eight steps:

  1. Site management
  2. Hazard identification
  3. Risk evaluation
  4. Protective equipment
  5. Information management
  6. Implementing an action plan
  7. Decontamination
  8. Post-incident review

What each of these steps looks like varies between incidents. In all cases, organizations must tackle each one carefully but quickly to minimize damage to equipment and protect nearby people. While that typically falls to human experts, AI brings needed improvements to the entire process.

How AI Improves Hazmat Response

The use of AI in hazmat response is a relatively new practice, but it has several promising applications. Here are a few of the most significant ways AI can improve this area.

1. Automated Record-Keeping

AI’s potential in hazmat response begins before an incident ever occurs. An informed cleanup plan is only possible with thorough record-keeping — AI ensures this documentation is up-to-date and accurate.

The EPA requires annual reports for any facility storing 10,000 pounds or more of a hazardous chemical. However, maintaining records this detailed manually introduces significant room for error. AI can automate the data entry and organization required to ensure these reports are free of mistakes and go to the appropriate authorities on time.

Automated record-keeping is important outside of regulatory reporting. AI can automatically adjust documents as storage levels or conditions change so emergency responders have the most up-to-date information possible when an accident happens. Similarly, AI can gather data from across an organization to provide a comprehensive record that’s easier to access and read.

2. Automatic Alerts

Once a hazmat incident occurs, AI enables a faster response. Machine learning models can analyze Internet of Things (IoT) data to detect leaks, spills and other hazards in real-time. They can then alert relevant stakeholders the same way security monitoring solutions do during a data breach.

Since AI can respond in real time, it minimizes emergency response times even when labor shortages limit available staff. Similarly, AI on the responders’ side can field calls to ensure only real emergencies go through to call centers, giving them more time and resources to react appropriately. Some facilities already use AI to manage 36%-40% of their calls, highlighting this potential.

When recognizing and communicating an incident takes less time, organizations can contain it before it causes much damage. This speed will become all the more valuable as worker shortages grow.

3. Hazard Identification

AI can also help hazmat responders identify materials faster and more accurately. Manufacturers generate around 1,800 petabytes of data annually, providing more than enough context to learn what different materials look like in varying situations. Machine vision or similar solutions can then classify hazmats in real time for a more informed response.

Humans may be unable to identify hazmats by eye, requiring testing to determine their makeup if no documentation is available. AI can perform similar tests by analyzing sensor data alongside machine vision readings. Because AI can perform this analysis faster and more accurately, this automation lets teams respond appropriately in less time.

Once AI has identified a material, it becomes clear how to clean it up safely. Making that decision in minimal time is often key to protecting employee health, especially that of the emergency responders.

4. Physical Automation

In some cases, AI can even automate physical response tasks. Cleaning up a chemical spill is dangerous work. Consequently, it makes sense to use robots to get close to the hazmats instead, and AI makes these machines more reliable.

Machine vision and real-time sensor analysis let robots identify hazards while human operators stay a safe distance. AI-equipped drones have detected small amounts of radioactive material from hundreds of yards away in some demonstrations. Improvements like this ensure responders can get a handle on the situation without endangering themselves.

As robotics technology advances, AI-powered robots could also clean and contain a chemical spill. When this practice becomes mainstream, hazmat incidents will cause far less damage.

5. Preventing Future Incidents

AI also improves the last step in hazmat response. Many organizations already use AI to streamline supply chains by highlighting inefficiencies and suggesting alternatives. The same concept can yield ongoing optimization in hazmat incident response plans.

Over time, businesses will accumulate data on past hazmat accidents. Predictive analytics solutions can analyze these datasets to find trends, such as frequent mistakes or common causes of these incidents. Safety managers can use these insights to refine their operations to prevent similar situations in the future.

The more data AI models get on this subject, the more accurate they become. Consequently, hazmat responses can grow increasingly reliable over time.

AI Provides Crucial Support for Emergency Responses

Hazmat response may not be the most glamorous AI application, but it is a critical one. AI’s speed and accuracy ensure businesses can prevent many chemical accidents and minimize the damage in incidents that do occur.

Emergency responses become increasingly crucial as supply chain operations accelerate but workforce challenges rise. Automation through AI is the ideal answer. As more organizations embrace this opportunity, this technology could reshape industrial health and safety.