US CSB continues to call for stronger rules on reactive chemicals

By OGJ editors
WASHINGTON, DC, Feb. 9 -- The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) Feb. 5 said it found "unacceptable" that the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has so far opted not to consider CSB recommendations to broaden reactive chemical rules for the workplace. In addition, CSB called for regulators to compile data on reactive chemical accidents, a finding both OSHA and the US Environmental Protection Agency also have chosen to ignore for the time being.

In a letter to OSHA Assistant Sec. of Labor John Henshaw, CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt said, the board voted unanimously Feb. 2 to designate OSHA's response as "open—unacceptable response." By designating the recommendations "open," CSB indicated it would 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 reactive chemicals.

CSB is an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents, but its findings are not binding.

Responding to CSB, OSHA's Henshaw said that "our comprehensive approach to address hazards is a sound one. 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. We welcome the opportunity to continue to work with the Board and would consider further information they provide us."

Chemical industry responds
The American Chemical Council said Feb. 6 it is already working with federal regulators and sister trade groups on a public information campaign that it says is the best and most efficient way to meet workplace needs. The industry-sponsored campaign reflects diverse industry uses and applications of reactive chemicals, including petrochemicals, a spokesperson said.

To that end the council is publishing a chemical management guidebook that will be available on the Center for Chemical Process Safety's web site. ACC said the initial focus of its collaboration with OSHA and EPA will be on outreach and exchange of technical and managerial information.

ACC cited a recent CSB report that found a "substantial" majority of reactive chemistry incidents occur in environments where technical information that could have been used to prevent the incident already exists.

ACC said it and other trade groups will "strive to find new ways to provide both information and proper analysis of this information to those who need it and might not otherwise know it exists."

CSB calls for action
CSB asked OSHA to amend what is called the Process Safety Management Standard (PSM) to achieve what the board sees as a need for stronger government control of reactive hazards. CSB said improper use of reactive chemicals have led to "numerous" catastrophic incidents that have killed scores of workers over the past 2 decades.

For that reason, CSB said industry outreach efforts still aren't enough.

In the letter to Sec. 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 October 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 2 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.

CSB said 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.

CSB also categorized OSHA's refusal to develop a reactive incident database as "unacceptable." Chairman Merritt wrote, "The board would like to clarify that the recommendation only asks OSHA to track data from incidents that OSHA investigates or requires to be investigated under current OSHA regulations."

Finally, the CSB chairman expressed hope the recommendations would ultimately be adopted. She wrote, "The board's goal is that all our recommendations be acceptably implemented. We would like to work with you in moving toward an acceptable outcome and we will reconsider the status of these recommendations upon timely follow-up responses."

Industry follow-up
Meanwhile chemical groups said they know more outreach may be needed to address the issue.

"ACC realizes that to address the full scope of reactive chemistry issues, additional tools and technical development may be necessary to serve the diverse community of chemical producers and users. Organizations such as CCPS will provide a key link to existing technical expertise to assist in developing these tools," an ACC spokesperson said.

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