Process safety is a good way to avoid bad consequences

June 6, 2007
Process safety is an essential component of risk avoidance. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has long recognized the critically important role for process safety awareness.

Its 1992 Process Safety Management (PSM) final rule reflects more than a regulatory response to the Bhopal disaster which occurred almost a decade earlier (see U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration, Safety and Health Topics, Process Safety Management (PSM), at

Its commitment to process safety reflects a systematic and disciplined approach to expressing the heart and soul of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act — Section 5(a)(1), often referred to as the General Duty Clause. This column offers some reflections on process safety, and the significance of employer and employee commitment to it 24/7.

The General Duty Clause

Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees (OSH Act § 5(a)(1), 29 U.S.C. § 654(a)(1))” This “general duty” generally summarizes in clear terms the duty owed by employers to employees. While short on specifics, the standard is one of several critically important legal standards OSHA implements under the OSH Act, and enforces to protect workers and the communities in which manufacturing facilities are located from potential harm arising out of manufacturing facilities staging and processing quantities of hazardous substances.

Since Bhopal, the severity of harm that results from sudden and unexpected releases of toxic, reactive, or flammable liquids and gases in manufacturing and related industrial processes involving highly hazardous chemicals is well recognized. To ensure that similar incidents of this epic proportion don’t reoccur, OSHA issued the PSM rule in 1992 after extensive comment and public input. The PSM rule, and its U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) counterpart rule, the Risk Management Program (RMP), are well constructed, thoughtful, regulatory measures intended to protect workers from the harm that processes involving potential hazardous chemicals are capable of causing when inadequate, or other workplace distractions threaten human health and safety.

No substitute for workplace safety

These regulatory measures go a long way in protecting workers and others. What they cannot do, however, is substitute for a worker’s and employer’s consistent commitment to workplace safety. This commitment doesn’t derive only from a regulatory or legal obligation to comply with the law. It flows from a conscientious and sustained effort to be aware of and on the lookout for hazards in the workplace that could compromise safety and human health.

The PSM is an important regulatory standard, like its EPA counterpart, that gives specific and enforceable expression to the OSH Act General Duty Clause. As readers know, OSHA enforces many regulatory standards intended to achieve and maintain workplace safety. Those include, for example, compliance with air contaminant standards, hazard communication requirements, and lock-out/tag-out requirements, among other standards. Failure to comply with these standards can result in administrative enforcement actions, as well as civil and criminal legal actions. More importantly, failure to comply can result in loss of life or limb, and a range of adverse commercial consequences including negative media attention, insurance premium increases or worse, adverse financial ratings if a company is publicly traded. Additionally, union problems, lawsuits, and tort actions are among many other business consequences.

Process safety is a critical component of a company’s commitment to safety and compliance with the “compact” all employers have with their employees pursuant to the General Duty Clause. Consistent compliance with the PSM, as well as an abiding commitment to be aware of and sensitive to potential workplace hazards, put employers and employees in good stead to avoid harm.

Lynn Bergeson is managing director of Bergeson & Campbell, P.C., a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that concentrates on chemical industry issues. Contact her at [email protected]. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author. This column is not intended to provide, nor should be construed as, legal advice.

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