Wednesday, October 01, 2003

OSHA Prepares "Response" to CSB on Reactive Chemical Hazards"

In a speech to the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) annual conference, Assistant Secretary for OSHA John Henshaw described the offical reponse that OSHA is preparing to make in response to recommendations from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board regarding reactive chemical safety.

Last year, the CSB recommended to OSHA that the agency "Amend the Process Safety Management Standard (PSM), 29 CFR 1910.119, to achieve more comprehensive control of reactive hazards that could have catastrophic consequences."

Instead of committing to begin work on a standard, however, Henshaw instead promised a "comprehensive approach for addressing the hazards posed by reactive chemicals," consisting of making information and guidance available to employers, working cooperatively with stakeholders, and "where appropriate," issuing citations under the general duty clause.

The CSB recommendation was a product of a study by the Board that
examined 167 serious chemical accidents in the U.S. over the last 20 years that have involved uncontrolled chemical reactions. These accidents caused 108 deaths as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. More than half of the accidents involved chemicals that are exempt from OSHA and EPA process safety rules.

The Board requested that OSHA broaden the application of the PSM standard to cover both individual chemicals and combinations of chemicals that can undergo hazardous reactions under specific process conditions. The standard currently applies to only 137 listed chemicals, plus a class of flammable substances (there are estimated to be thousands of chemicals in common industrial use). Just 38 "highly reactive" chemicals are currently covered by the PSM standard. But the CSB study documented numerous examples where chemicals considered to be less reactive nonetheless caused runaway reactions, explosions, fires, or toxic gas releases, often with fatal consequences.
Although OSHA had six months to respond to the CSB, aside from participating in a CSB Roundtable this past June, OSHA has made no substantive response to the non-binding recommendation.

Last June, several labor unions petitioned OSHA for a new standard. Five unions had originally petitioned OSHA for a revised PSM standard in 1995 following an explosion and fire that year that claimed five lives at a Lodi, New Jersey plant. Under the Clinton Administration, OSHA had planned to issue an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to collect additional information on reactive chemical hazards as a first step toward revising the standard.

In December 2001, however, OSHA withdrew the proposed ANPR from the regulatory agenda because of “resource constraints and other priorities.”

Apparently, the current rationale for not issuing a regulation is that
It was apparent at the June Roundtable that we have yet to reach consensus on how to tackle this issue. Serious differences clearly remain as to what is the best way to anticipate potential problems and deal with them before they get out of control.
The main action promised by Henshaw was to
make available on our website the new CCPS book on chemical reactivity -- Essential Practices for Managing Chemical Reactivity Hazards. As you know, this book is a compendium of best practices, drawn from leaders in chemical processing and reviewed by experts.

OSHA will make this book available on the agency's website on a new page devoted specifically to reactive chemical hazards. Any employer, any worker -- actually anyone who visits our website -- can download information from the book -- FREE -- for the next three years.
According to a health and safety newsletter that actually interviews real people (instead of just spewing forth), labor responses to Henshaw's remarks ranged from calling it "preposterous" to calls for his resignation for letting people die "from completely preventable explosions." One labor representative accused Henshaw of turning OSHA "into a publishing house, not a government standard-setting adn enforcement agency as conceived under the OSH Act."


NOTE FROM THE CENSOR PUBLISHER: As the author of Confined Space has a certain conflict of interest with regard to this matter, he is recusing himself from making any inflammatory or judgmental statements about OSHA's response. Instead, he will employ something vaguely resembling the Socratic Method, asking a few relevant questions, thereby allowing readers to come to their own independent conclusions.


Where was I? Oh yes, Relevant Questions.

1. Hmm, "Comprehensive Appoach" Where, or where have you heard that before? Hint, Hint # 2

2. Can you find somewhere in the OSH Act, the legislative history
or even a court decision that says that there has to be a consensus among all "stakeholders" before OSHA can issue a standard (much less begin work on one)?

3. It's very nice of OSHA to make the CCPS's book available on the Web. Really. It's very nice. It's a very good book. Everyone agrees.

But if you were running a chemical refinery or a large (or even small or medium size) factory that uses a lot of potentially reactive chemicals in chemical processes, wouldn't you think you could shell out the dinero for your own copy of the book? I mean, for only $218 you can buy Essential Practices for Managing Chemical Reactivity Hazards and even get a copy of Guidelines for Chemical Reactivity Evaluation and Application to Process Design from CCPS ($20 discunt for buying both books separately.)

Now, $218 for a couple of books may be a bit pricy for your average family ("Hey Marge, cancel the trip to Borders, OSHA's got the book on the web!"), but it probably won't break the budget of most companies in America who process reactive chemicals. So what great public service is OSHA providing to humankind by allowing web surfers to "download information from the book -- FREE -- for the next three years?"

4. Read the CSB Recommendation again: "Amend the Process Safety Management Standard (PSM), 29 CFR 1910.119, to achieve more comprehensive control of reactive hazards that could have catastrophic consequences."

Now look at OSHA's comprehensive approach: making information available, working with stakeholders, and issuing some general duty clause citations.

Is one an equivalent replacement for the other? Is OSHA's "new" comprehensive approach significantly different from its current approach?

Talk among yourselves.