2-year staff investigation points to gaps in OSHA and industry standards for reactive chemicals

The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board called on federal regulators and trade groups to improve the safety record of US chemical plants by broadening the scope of process safety rules.

By OGJ editors

WASHINGTON, DC, Sept. 23 -- The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) called on federal regulators and trade groups to improve the safety record of US chemical plants by broadening the scope of process safety rules in the workplace.

At a recent meeting in Houston, the board said that workers continue to be exposed unnecessarily to "reactive hazards" that can occur when volatile chemical processes are not controlled.

The group's new findings and recommendations stem from a 2-year special investigation into hazards at US sites that manufacture, store, or use potentially reactive chemicals. The study examined 167 serious chemical accidents in the US over the last 20 years that involved uncontrolled chemical reactions. Those accidents caused 108 deaths as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. CSB investigators concluded that reactive chemical accidents pose a "significant problem" and that the pertinent federal process safety regulations contain "significant gaps" in their applicability and in their specific provisions.

The CSB is an independent, scientific investigative agency, not a regulatory or enforcement body. It was created by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 but was not funded until January 1998 when it finally began operations. The 5-member panel makes recommendations but does not issue fines or assign responsibility for accidents.

Petrochemical operations cited
The board said it convened in Houston Sept. 17 because the area is a major petrochemical industry center and the site of several tragic accidents caused by uncontrolled reactive hazards. The CSB identified 28 serious reactive chemical accidents in Texas and Louisiana since 1980. Three of the five costliest reactive accidents occurred in the two states, with combined property damages in excess of $210 million, the board said.

The board found that more than half of the 167 surveyed incidents involved chemicals that are not covered by either the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Process Safety Management rules or the Environmental Protection Agency's Risk Management Program (RMP) regulations. Those rules require companies to apply good safety management practices to certain hazardous chemical processes.

"The lack of comprehensive regulatory coverage for reactive hazards has been a deficiency since the process safety rules were first issued in the 1990s," said Carolyn W. Merritt, CSB chairman and chief executive officer.

The CSB investigation also found that, despite the existence of much information on chemical reactivity in scientific literature and elsewhere, some companies are not making sufficient use of the information. According to lead investigator John Murphy, "In at least 90% of the accidents we analyzed, information on the hazards was obtainable from publicly available literature. However, federal workplace regulations contain few specifics on the need to review reactive hazard information."

The board asked OSHA to have companies conduct improved hazard analyses and collect more complete safety information for regulated processes. The Board will also ask for improvements to industry codes and guidance such as the American Chemistry Council's Responsible Care program and the National Association of Chemical Distributors' Responsible Distribution Process.

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