Thursday, February 05, 2004

Chemical Safety Board Blasts OSHA

Chem Board Found To Be One of Few Government Agencies Not Comatose

Calling OSHA's inaction "unacceptable," the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) today criticized the agency for not taking action on reactive chemical hazards despite hundreds of incidents, some catastrophic, that have killed more than 100 workers over the past decade. The CSB recommended in September 2002 that OSHA revise its Process Safety Standard (PSM) to include reactive chemicals. In November 2003, OSHA responded that it had not yet decided whether to revise the PSM standard because no consensus on a best approach had emerged.

According to the CSB press release
In a letter to John Henshaw, Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt said the Board voted unanimously on Feb. 2, 2004, to designate OSHA's response as "Open -- Unacceptable Response." By designating the recommendations "open," the Board indicated it will continue to seek action from OSHA on the requested actions. Chairman Merritt said the Board was "disappointed" that OSHA had given no indication when it might make a decision on moving forward to extend coverage of reactives.

In the letter to Secretary Henshaw, Chairman Merritt wrote, "While the Board commends OSHA on increased outreach efforts designed "to heighten awareness of hazards associated with reactivity," Board members continue to believe that the evidence compiled by the CSB"s investigation strongly indicates that a revision of the standard is necessary."

The Board voted in Oct. 2002 to make the recommendation to OSHA, which is required by law to formally respond to the CSB. The recommendation followed the release of a two-year CSB hazard investigation entitled "Improving Reactive Chemical Management." The study called reactive chemical accidents a "significant chemical safety problem" that are responsible for continuing deaths, injuries and environmental property damage nationwide. The study focused on 167 serious accidents over 20 years, which caused 108 fatalities and hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.

Reactive hazards exist when a single chemical or a mixture has the potential to undergo a violent, uncontrolled reaction when improperly processed or combined. The chemical reactions can release large quantities of heat, energy and gases, causing fires, explosions or toxic emissions. Reactive chemicals and mixtures often appear harmless until exposed to specific processing or storage conditions, such as elevated temperature.
The Board is currently composed of three appointees of President Bush, and one holdover from the Clinton Administration. Board Member Gerald Poje, a Clinton appointee, noted that New Jersey had recently issued a reactives regulation and praised the state for showing the leadership instead of waiting for a consensus was achieved.

Five unions 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, but the Bush Administration removed it from the regulatory agenda in December 2001. Last June, a group of labor unions and environmental organizations again petitioned OSHA to address reactive hazards in the PSM standard.

OSHA's administrator, John Henshaw, responded to the Board's letter stating
"Our goal is to be sure that workers are safe and healthy and we will continue to work with chemical safety stakeholders to prevent incidents in the future."
Since the Boards' report was released in 2002, OSHA has initiated a number of educational efforts to educate the chemical industry about reactive hazards and has participated in roundtable discussions with industry, labor and environmentalists in an effort to reach a consensus. CSB Board Chairman Merritt pointed out, however, that her years in industry showed that regulations were much more effective in changing behavior than voluntary measures.

The Board's letter stated that
Board members continue to believe that the evidence compiled by the CSB's investigation strongly indicates that a revision of the standard is necessary. Board members do not feel that a consensus on the best approach should be a condition for deciding the baseline question of whether a revision of the PSM standard is necessary. There is certainly no lack of ideas or opinions concerning how the problem can be solved. OSHA has under its authority ample means to gather the information and advice needed to determine how best to approach revision of this standard. These include an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, development of a proposed rule, as well as comments, public hearings and post hearing comments on that proposal.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the Board's decision
a serious indictment of the Bush Administration's dismal worker safety and health record. It shows that even in the case of deadly hazards the Bush Administration sides with giant corporations and refuses to act to protect workers....Putting corporate interests over worker safety is leaving workers in serious danger. The Bush Administration should act now to regulate reactive chemicals before more workers' lives are lost.