Wednesday, September 28, 2005

New Jersey Invites Worker Participation In Chemical Plant Inspections

Workers and the citizens of New Jersey who are concerned about the hazards of chemical plants won a victory this week.

The state of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued an administrative order Monday allowing workers to participate in DEP inspections, investigations or audits of chemical facilities where workers can help identify hazards, including those that might lead to catastrophic chemical incidents, whether from industrial accidents or terrorist acts.
"Greater participation by workers to identify and resolve potential threats involving the use of hazardous chemicals in the industrial process will make neighborhoods safer and is good business policy," said Acting Governor Richard J. Codey. "We will work with New Jersey businesses to ensure this initiative improves risk prevention plans for each facility."
The regulations, the first in the country, are based on a little known section of the Clean Air Act which gives workers and their representatives the same rights to participate in inspections conducted by EPA or the Chemical Safety Board as are provided to workers in the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The OSHAct allows employees' "designated representatives" (unions) to accompany OSHA inspectors during their inspections. New Jersey will now allow the designated union representative to participate in an inspection or investigation and to participate in meetings with management about the inspection. Employees and their union representatives will be notified prior to DEP inspections.

The New Jersey Work Environment Council was pleased with the DEP order:
“We applaud the DEP for taking this groundbreaking action to protect workers, communities and the environment," said Rick Engler, Director of the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC), a coalition of 70 labor unions and environmental organizations that advocates for safe, secure jobs and a healthy, sustainable environment. "Workers are uniquely positioned to point out chemical hazards to DEP inspectors – and many of these hazards have the potential to cause a chemical disaster."

Engler noted there are seven facilities in New Jersey where a worst-case toxic release could harm more than a million residents – and 33 where such a release could harm more than 10,000 residents.
Industry, on the other hand, was not pleased to see more worker participation:

Hal Bozarth of the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, an industry group, said Campbell should have held public hearings on the worker participation plan.

"I feel like we've been shut out of a very important process, since we care deeply about worker safety," Bozarth said. "I question what this is about. Are we that close to November?"

The order applies to inspections at industrial facilities covered under New Jersey's Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act (TCPA). TCPA is the New Jersey version of EPA's Risk Management Program which requires facilities that use designated quantities of certain highly hazardous chemicals to develop risk management plans that analyze on-site and off site vulnerabilities, develop emergency response plans and confer with the surrounding community. The New Jersey TCPA also requires facilities to drill their emergency response plans each year with employee participation and requires facilities to evaluate state of the art technologies every five years to reduce the risk of an accident and implement this technology if cost effective.

Meanwhile, DEP also announced that it was abandoning a secret pact that would have let industry groups help set chemical plant security standards without the input of the unions that represent workers at the plants. The pact had generated major opposition from New Jersey unions and environmental groups when it was announced last February. Although the details of the pact were never revealed, Bozarth said that it committed the chemical facilities in the state to comply with "Responsible Care" guidelines developed by the American Chemistry Council which, an association representing the chemical industry.

Engler and labor activists had criticized the pact, calling for public hearings on the precautions that chemical facilities should take to ensure their security from terrorism. The Governor announced that he intended to hold public hearings.

Bozarth said that abandonment of the pact was "a shame."