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Risk Management Program Updates: What the EPA’s New Rules Mean for Chemical Plants

April 18, 2023
New RMP guidelines will impact the way chemical facility managers analyze incidents, implement corrective actions and protect their workers and the surrounding community from hazards.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to update risk-management program (RMP) rules could have a far-reaching impact on chemical processing operations in 2023. The agency made the initial changes in August, and public input on the newly proposed Risk Management Program for Safer Communities by Chemical Accident Prevention rule concluded in October of last year. Now, the agency is reviewing and finalizing modifications to its existing risk-management program requirements to help U.S. chemical processors better safeguard their operations and communities against spills, leaks and explosions that result from natural disasters and accidents.

If these changes are approved, U.S. operators will need to work fast to review and update their existing procedures.

What You Need to Know

Unlike the updates to Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s process safety management rule we discussed last month, the EPA’s proposed changes likely won’t extend the agency’s reach into new businesses. Still, as many processors are already covered under the EPA’s RMP guidance, these changes are likely to affect the operations of countless chemical processing facilities in the United States.

The most significant changes outlined in the proposal address:

Incident investigation and compliance auditing procedures

Currently optional, root cause analyses (RCAs) will become mandatory for all covered businesses under the EPA’s proposal. Chemical processors that haven’t been performing formal RCAs as part of incident investigations will need to adopt them. Companies that have adopted formal RCAs will need to review their processes to ensure they’re using an approved framework moving forward.

Another currently optional procedure that may become mandatory under certain circumstances is third-party auditing. The new rules may give the implementing agency the authority to decide when a business must engage with a third party to help ensure ongoing compliance.

Accident prevention program provisions

Corrective actions resulting from process hazard analyses, incident investigations and compliance audits also may need to change in accordance with the EPA’s adjustments.

Under the new guidance, businesses will need to send the EPA written justification should they decide not to pursue an identified remediation, which the EPA will document for future reference and, potentially, the public. This change may motivate leaders to adjust processes, as company reputations could suffer if documented rejections lead to incidents down the line.

Employee rights and responsibilities

Universal stop-work authority is now common practice across industrial operations, and the EPA’s new RMP guidance will reflect that. Under the proposal, the EPA will require companies to extend stop-work authority to all employees and provide other employee-focused resources to empower workers to speak up about safety issues.

The EPA’s guidance outlines strategies to improve communication between workers and management, such as implementing anonymous reporting programs and conducting briefings to explain management’s decisions about rejected recommendations.

Emergency response provisions

The updated RMP rule details emergency response planning requirements for facilities in areas where the local emergency responders may not have the resources and experience related to chemical-rated emergencies. In heavily industrialized areas, local agencies may be familiar with industrial incidents and are prepared to respond. However, facilities in other areas may not have these resources at their disposal, and they will be responsible for putting community protections in place to ensure that emergency preparedness extends beyond the facility’s walls.

Getting these programs in place could be a significant financial and logistical undertaking. Operators in these areas may need to work with local officials to gauge existing capabilities, model potential community impact and implement plans to develop in-house supplementary first response teams.

Next Steps for Chemical Plant Operators

Operations managers in EPA-covered facilities should begin assessing their current procedures now  before the EPA finalizes its ruling in August. If they determine they lack the resources to comply with the RMP, managers should begin speaking with executives and local leaders to identify solutions.

Of course, they should frame their evaluation around the business needs first, with the EPA’s updates playing a secondary role. After all, falling short in audits can lead to fines or regulatory scrutiny, but compliance doesn’t ensure safety—and that’s the end goal. Rather than viewing regulation changes as more red tape to work around, operations managers and executives should embrace these moments as an opportunity to reassess their approach with safety at the center.

Chemical processing operators that act now will get ahead of changing rules and, potentially, the of the next safety incident. That’s time and effort well spent, regardless of what the EPA’s final RMP rule looks like.

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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