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Chemicals get a bad reaction in Washington

Jan. 28, 2005
Accidents and deaths have not been enough to spur regulatory change under the Bush administration.  There have been 167 accidents in the past two decades, and 108 people were killed in 48 of the incidents.

Regulation of reactive chemicals has been debated for years. According to the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board’s (CSB) 2002 report, there have been 167 serious reactive chemical accidents during the past two decades, and 108 people were killed in 48 of the incidents. Despite the debate, neither legislative nor regulatory action is expected any time soon.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates highly hazardous chemicals, including reactives, under its standard on Process Safety Management (PSM). The PSM standard is intended to protect workers from hazards associated with catastrophic releases of “toxic, reactive, flammable or explosive chemicals” and applies to processes that use more than a threshold quantity of any of 137 listed chemicals.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also regulates certain aspects of workplace chemical hazards pursuant to Clean Air Act (CAA) Section 112(r), which requires affected facilities to develop and register a risk-management program (RMP) to prevent chemical accidents. If a stationary source uses a process that has one or more of certain listed, regulated substances present in more than a “threshold quantity,” certain responsibilities are triggered.

At the heart of the debate about the adequacy of existing regulatory controls for reactive chemicals is a CSB Reactives Report that was released in September 2002. This report identified 167 serious incidents in the United States involving uncontrolled chemical reactivity from January 1980 to June 2001. The report also includes recommendations to OSHA and EPA. CSB urged EPA to update its RMP rule to cover catastrophic releases of reactive chemicals. 

EPA announced amendments to the RMP last April, but the regulation of reactives was not changed. CSB also urged OSHA to, among other things, amend the PSM standard to control reactive hazards that could have “catastrophic consequences,” and to implement a program to define and record information on reactive incidents.

On Nov. 13, 2003, OSHA declined to pursue CSB’s recommendations. The agency instead committed to take steps regarding reactive chemical hazard management, largely consisting of enhancing its education and outreach efforts to broaden awareness about reactive chemical hazards.

OSHA also emphasized its commitment to make certain information available on its Web site for no charge. That included guidance published by the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) on model reactive hazard management systems titled “Essential Practices for Managing Chemical Reactivity Hazards.” The CSB classified OSHA’s response as unacceptable and issued a press release announcing its disappointment.

Despite the passage of time, it is likely that additional guidance and related nonregulatory, collaborative measures will be OSHA’s preferred response to CSB’s concerns about reactive chemicals. There are several reasons supporting this view. First, the Bush Administration does not support regulatory action. Although the AFL-CIO denounced OSHA’s response to the CSB recommendations and characterized it as a “serious indictment” of the Administration’s “dismal worker safety and health record,” Bush’s reelection largely renders this rhetoric hollow.

Second, there is no consensus among stakeholders about how best to proceed. The views of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) may best characterize the sentiments of other professionals in the field. In a letter dated Sept. 4, 2003, to OSHA and EPA, ASSE expressed its view that although the OSHA PSM and EPA RMP are two of the most successful programs the federal government has ever undertaken, it is not clear that these programs are appropriate for reactive chemicals. 

This view is shared by others in the field who believe reactive chemicals simply do not consistently or universally fit the model for flammables and toxics. This drives the PSM and RMP standards. Until a clearer consensus emerges regarding how best to address reactive processes, the Bush Administration has little political capital to lose in proceeding as it has.

The debate is not likely to go away. Absent a catastrophic accident of epic proportion, the regulatory situation probably will not change.

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