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How OSHA’s Process Safety Management Updates Impact the Chemical Industry

March 6, 2023
Regulatory changes could impact the way chemical manufacturers handle highly hazardous chemicals

In September 2022, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proceeded with several amendments to its existing process safety management (PSM) regulations (1910.119). This standard concerns the handling of highly hazardous chemicals (HHCs), which includes flammable materials and selected toxic and reactive chemicals. The amendments aim to expand the measure’s reach within already-covered facilities and potentially to new locations. With the public comment period concluded and the final rule’s language under consideration, chemical processing organizations may soon need to revisit their approach to process safety and risk mitigation.

Once OSHA confirms its regulations, the agency expects facilities to update their processes quickly. That means chemical processing companies should start working on action plans immediately.  

What Chemical Plants Need to Know

OSHA’s proposed changes will significantly affect operational processes within the industry, and they will touch more businesses than ever before. While the legislation covers a wide variety of risk factors within facilities that handle HHCs, the most critical updates expand the boundaries of the rule through:

Clarifications of exemptions. The updates primarily focus on addressing a long-standing exception (known as the Meer exemption) related to the atmospheric storage of flammable materials. Previous rulings provided a compliance exception for facilities storing flammables in atmospheric storage tanks, thus allowing the quantities of the material stored in atmospheric tanks to be exempt from the final total of flammable materials contained in the process and covered facility PSM programs.

The newly proposed amendments would change how OSHA applies this exception, limiting the number of facilities eligible to take advantage of it. This means some facilities that previously operated selected processes without consideration for OSHA’s PSM requirements may now need to invest in compliant protocols for these processes. Additionally, some facilities may now be subject to OSHA’s PSM regulations if the quantity of HHCs stored in previously excluded atmospheric storage tanks causes the facility’s total to exceed the allowable amounts of flammable materials.

Updated RAGAGEP definition. In 2015, OSHA incorporated compliance with Recognized and Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practice (RAGAGEP) guidance into its PSM interpretations. This  interpretation expanded the RAGAGEP scope to include additional industry publications (e.g., CCPS guideline publications), other industry writings (e.g., trade publication articles), and internal company standards. Under the new definition, practices and guidance outlined in other industry writings—such as trade magazines—or by operators’ internal documents will be considered among applicable RAGAGEPs. Should this proposal make it into the final rules, the addition of hundreds of new sources will make compliance more complex.

Proposed updates may require organizations to at least review and evaluate changes to RAGAGEPs, which could compel facilities to update their equipment to align with updated and new RAGAGEPs. This decision could make significant and ongoing investments in upgrades a regular occurrence for covered sites that can’t successfully argue their case for an exception.

Revised reactive chemical definitions. Looking expand its purview further, OSHA will likely make significant additions to the PSMs. Naturally, these additions will have similar consequences as the clarifications described above. Facilities, including those that are currently exempt, may now find themselves subject to new rules and will need to update their protocols accordingly.

The proposed amendment will include simple additions of functional reactives. Still, OSHA has signaled an interest in a more significant reimagining of its HHC list. Chemical operators will need to take note. If the agency follows New Jersey’s lead, mirroring that state’s Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act program, OSHA may transition to a class-based definition system. This means the rules outlined in PSM guidance will apply to an increasingly broad range of agents and facilities.

What Chemical Plants Need to Do

Any companies that manage HHCs should start reevaluating and adjusting their operations now. However, this process should focus on changes that align with OSHA’s guidance as well as their organization’s business needs. Executive leadership and operations managers should begin the evaluation process using OSHA’s proposal as a guide but not acting as the last word in process improvements.

While compliance failures can lead to fines or regulatory scrutiny, managers and operators should view moments like these as an opportunity to improve safety inside and outside their facilities.

In an industry with so much inherent risk, it’s crucial that chemical processing leaders look beyond compliance. Business leaders who act now will be better positioned to protect the public from potential harm today and maintain compliance when the time comes.

About the Author

Randy Montgomery, ABS Group

Randy Montgomery is the senior director, risk and reliability, ABS Group. He has more than 40 years of experience in reliability, maintenance, integrity management, process safety, operations and process engineering, including 13 years of industrial experience. Currently, he is responsible for identifying, developing and delivering technical solutions to help oil, gas and chemical industry clients preserve their right to operate and improve their return on investment. In his previous roles, Montgomery focused on assessing, designing and improving programs to confirm asset integrity and improve asset performance. He is the coauthor of the Center for Chemical Process Safety's Guidelines for Effective Mechanical Integrity Programs. He also has co-authored several technical papers in the field of maintenance and reliability. He holds a B.S. degree in chemical engineering from the University of Cincinnati. 

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