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Tsunami Warnings Now Faster, More Accurate Deep Sea Sensors, Sophisticated Modeling Software Enhance Prediction Efforts

As the deadly tsunami generated by Friday’s massive earthquake off the coast of Japan headed toward the United States, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Center for Tsunami Research tracked its progress in real-time.

Dozens of deep-ocean tsunami-monitoring sensors more than three miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean picked up information on the silent swell of water and transmitted it by way of a satellite to the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Wash.

Tsunami chart

NOAA energy map shows the intensity of the tsunami caused by Japan’s magnitude 8.9 earthquake. Darker red colors are more intense. (Image: Ho New/Reuters)

There, scientists crunched the data and quickly developed real-time predictions about how and when the tsunami would reach select locations in Hawaii, Alaska and the U.S west coast. The models predicted the wave arrival time, estimated wave height and the likely extent of inundation for about 50 communities likely to be affected.

When the data indicates danger, first responders in those communities get plenty of time to put evacuation plans into motion to limit human loss.

That kind of real-time, precision forecasting is a far cry from what was available in 2004 during the massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean, said Diego Arcas, a scientist with the NOAA Center for Tsunami Research (NCTR). That tsunami nearly obliterated the Indonesian coastline and that of other countries, killing hundreds of thousands without warning.

“It’s almost a whole new world since 2004” in the field of tsunami forecasting, Arcas said.

Hundreds of people were killed and whole cities devastated in Japan by one of the worst earthquakes in over 100 years. The quake, which measured 8.9 on the Richter scale, generated a huge tsunami that inundated parts of Japan and put almost the entire Pacific coast line on high tsunami alert.

The effects of the quake, in terms of human loss and economic damage are expected to be huge.

The NCTR provides support to the national Tsunami Warning Center (TWC). Its mission is to develop numerical models for use by the TWC to develop faster and more reliable real-time tsunami forecasts. The technology used today by the NCTR is still being tested by the TWC for issuing tsunami warnings.

But it already represents the next step in tsunami modeling, Arcas said. Six years ago, there were just eight deep-sea sensors in the Pacific Ocean to monitor for tsunamis. Today, there about 30 of NOAA’s Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) buoys collecting such data and beaming it to the TWCs around the country.

There are also about 20 DART systems in the Atlantic and about half a dozen in the Indian Ocean.

When a tsunami travels across the ocean and passes over a DART system, the sensor measures the change in sea levels and reports it back to the TWCs. With first-generation DART sensors, alerts were triggered only when sea-level measurements exceeded specific thresholds.

Current DART systems feature two-way communications that allow forecasters to get measurement data on demand. The sensors are also so sensitive that they can detect an ocean level rise of less than one centimeter, Arcas said. “So we have the ocean instrumented much better than it was five years ago,” he said.

The data gathered from these deep sensors give tsunami modelers more information to work with compared to the data generated by tidal gauges. Combining the improved measurement capabilities with historical data — and data about bathymetry (ocean depth) and topography — scientists can predict tsunamis far more accurately, he said.

In fact, given the right set of data, scientists at the NOAA today can develop simulations of up to four hours of tsunami activity in about 10 minutes, Arcas said. “Usually, the largest waves happen within the first four hours of a tsunami,” he said. For first responders and emergency managers, “that is the most important information they want to get out of a warning.”

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at Twitter @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar’s RSS feed Vijayan RSS. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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CPSC Launches New Consumer Product Safety Information Database Today

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 11, 2011

Release #11-168 CPSC Recall Hotline: 800-638-2772

CPSC Media Contact: 301-504-7908

CPSC Launches New Consumer Product Safety Information Database Today

SaferProducts.gov database delivered on time, on budget for the public

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) goes live with the SaferProducts.gov database mandated by Congress, as part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. Beginning today, consumers are encouraged to visit www.SaferProducts.gov to submit Reports of harm or risks of harm, and to search for safety information on products they own or may be considering buying.

Reporting product safety incidents through this new, easy-to-use site will help CPSC identify product hazards quicker and provide consumers with safety information on products in and around the home.

“CPSC stayed on time and on budget in building this new database,” said Chairman Inez Tenenbaum. “Through SaferProducts.gov consumers will have open access to product safety information that they have never seen before and the information will empower them to make safer choices.”

Following procedures set up by the law, CPSC will review all online Reports and have five business days to transmit qualifying Reports to the manufacturer, where practicable. Manufacturers then have 10 business days during which they may respond and provide comments and/or claims. At the end of the 10 day period, if all requirements are met, the Report and the manufacturer’s comments will be posted on SaferProducts.gov

It is important that consumers provide CPSC with information that is true and accurate to the best of their knowledge. Reports lacking required information will not be published. Similarly, information in a report of harm determined to be materially inaccurate within the 10 days provided to manufacturers to respond will not be published. Reports that potentially contain confidential information will have such information taken out before the report is posted.

“I believe that an informed consumer is an empowered consumer,” added Chairman Tenenbaum. “The ability for parents and consumers to search this database for incidents involving a product they already own or are thinking of purchasing will enable them to make independent decisions aimed at keeping their family safe.”

On January 24, CPSC began registering businesses online, and accepting Reports though SaferProducts.gov to test the system. Since then, about 1500 Reports have been filed by consumers online. About 1400 manufacturers have signed up on the Business Portal, so they can receive a copy of a Report about their product in a timely manner via e-mail. Reports accepted during this test period will not be visible to the public but are being processed internally by CPSC as has been done with all Reports in the past.

“We will continue to accept written, phone and fax Reports, as we have for decades,” said Chairman Tenenbaum. “What is new and significant today is that we are launching an up-to-date system for letting consumers review safety reports alongside manufacturer comments about those Reports.”

Reports received today will be visible and searchable by consumers around the beginning of April. Until then, only CPSC’s recall information will be searchable within the database. For more information, go to SaferProducts.gov

OSHA Cites US Minerals Facility in Baldwin, Illinois for Failing to Lock Out Equipment & Protect Workers From Falls, Levied Fines Total $83,000

OSHA has issued seven citations to the U.S. Minerals LLC facility, in Baldwin, Illinois, for allegedly failing to develop and implement procedures to control hazardous energy, install guard rails where necessary and maintain equipment. The company faces penalties totaling $83,000 following an inspection that began during September 2010.

“U.S. Minerals’ failure to develop and implement plans to control hazardous energy and prevent injuries to workers is simply unacceptable,” said Thomas Bielema, OSHA’s area director in Peoria. “U.S. Minerals repeatedly has been cited at this facility and others for failing to follow OSHA safety and health standards to protect workers. OSHA is committed to ensuring employers abide by the law, which requires commonsense safety practices.”

One willful citation with a proposed penalty of $56,000 was issued for failing to develop and document procedures to control potentially hazardous energy. OSHA regulations require an employer to establish a program consisting of energy control procedures, employee training and periodic inspections. The purpose of such a program is to ensure that, before an employee performs any servicing or maintenance on a machine or other equipment where the unexpected energizing, startup or release of stored energy could occur and cause injury, the equipment is isolated from the energy source and rendered inoperative. A willful violation exists when an employer has demonstrated either an intentional disregard for the requirements of the law or plain indifference to employee safety and health.

OSHA also issued U.S. Minerals three repeat citations with proposed fines of $18,000 alleging that the company failed to have guardrails on an open-sided platform 17 feet high, install guarding on a material dump hopper, and provide and use lockout/tagout hardware devices for securing or blocking machines from energy sources. A repeat citation is issued when an employer previously has been cited for the same or a similar violation of a standard, regulation, rule or order at any other facility in federal enforcement states within the last five years.

Three serious citations were issued to the company alleging lack of inspection and maintenance documentation for a Caterpillar 980G Loader, use of an unguarded conveyer tail pulley, and failing to have authorized employees affix lockout/tagout equipment to energy isolation devices. Those violations carry total penalties of $9,000. A serious citation is issued when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

U.S. Minerals LLC, headquartered in Dyer, Ind., manufactures abrasive blasting and roofing materials from slag produced at coal-fired power plants. Following an inspection that began in June 2010, OSHA issued a $466,400 penalty to the company’s Baldwin facility in September citing 35 health and safety violations for willfully exposing workers to dangerously high levels of hazardous dust and failing to provide adequate breathing protection.

As a result of the egregious conditions found in Baldwin last summer, OSHA initiated inspections of the company’s three other facilities, including its Coffeen, Ill., location where a total of 28 health and safety citations with proposed penalties of $396,000 were issued in December 2010. In November 2010, the company’s Harvey, La., operation was cited for 30 violations with proposed penalties of $110,400, and its Galveston, Texas, facility was fined $273,000 and cited with 38 violations for exposing workers to fall and machine guarding hazards. U.S. Minerals is contesting the previously issued citations at all four of its facilities.

As a result of the company’s willful and repeat safety violations, U.S. Minerals was placed in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program in December 2010. The program focuses on employers with a history of safety violations that endanger workers by demonstrating indifference to their responsibilities under the law. This enforcement tool includes mandatory OSHA follow-up inspections and inspections of other worksites of the same employer where similar hazards and deficiencies may be present. For more information on SVEP, visit http://www.osha.gov/dep/svep-directive.pdf.

The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

FDA Urged to Work With OSHA to Determine Safe Levels of Formaldehyde in Hair Treatment Products

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been urged to work together with the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to establish if hair smoothing treatments emit unsafe levels of formaldehyde, given the industry outcry over the last six months.

Following the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel’s preliminary findings on the safety of formaldehyde and methylene glycol in these products, John Bailey, chief scientist Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), released a statement explaining there must be an understanding of ingredients and conditions of use.

The non-profit scientific panel reached the conclusion that formaldehyde and methylene glycol are safe in cosmetics products when formulated to ensure use at the minimal effective concentration and reiterated that amounts used in formulations should not exceed 0.2 percent.

Unsafe in aerosolized products

However, the Panel said it could not conclude “that formaldehyde/methylene glycol is safe in cosmetic products intended to be aerosolized or in which formaldehyde/methylene glycol vapor or gas will be produced under conditions of use.”

Bailey explained that PCPC joined FDA and consumer groups several months ago in requesting that CIR review the safety of formaldehyde and methylene glycol as they are used in professional hair straightening and smoothing products, and that it supports the findings.

“We urge FDA to work expeditiously with OSHA and appropriate state and local organizations to objectively determine if salon hair smoothing products emit levels of formaldehyde gas that are unsafe for consumers or salon workers under their intended conditions of use and taking into consideration salon ventilation practices,” he said.

Dependent on ventilation levels

Safe and proper use depends largely on the ventilation in the salon and the application procedure.

Bailey advised that consumers do not use these products at home and to check with salon professionals that the environment is properly ventilated to meet OSHA guidelines before receiving the treatment.

Until the review is completed and regulatory authorities have had the opportunity to assess it and come to their own conclusions, we urge consumers to exercise caution in using these products” said Bailey.

OSHA is responsible for regulating workplace safety and has established limits as to the safe levels of inhalation exposure to formaldehyde gas.

Heating products is a cause for concern

When hair smoothing products that contain formaldehyde or methylene glycol are heated, they can release low levels of formaldehyde gas.

These ingredients are sensitizing agents, and consumers or salon workers may experience allergic reactions if they become sensitized.

The Oregon arm of OSHA recently hit the headlines having been sued by Brazilian Blowout, a manufacturer of hair smoothing products.

The lawsuit has since been dropped for an, as yet, unknown reason. A spokesperson from OSHA told CosmeticsDesign.com USA that OSHA was unaware of the reason, and we are yet to hear back from Brazilian Blowout.

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