Roundtable Stirs up Reactives Reaction

July 30, 2003

In April 1995, an explosion and fire killed five employees and injured several others at Napp Technologies in Lodi, N.J. Two separate explosions in 1999 and 2000 claimed three lives and wounded more than 70 people at Phillips Chemical plant in Pasadena, Texas.

According to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), these accidents ," and more than 160 other incidents during the past 20 years ," involved uncontrolled reactive hazards such as chemical reactions, toxic gas releases or violent chemical decompositions. CSB recently wrapped up a two-year investigation of reactive chemical hazards in the U.S. chemical industry and published a report detailing its findings and its recommendations to step up safety.

Key among its numerous recommendations were:

To amend the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Process Safety Management (PSM) standard "to achieve more comprehensive control of reactive hazards that could have catastrophic consequences."

To revise the Accidental Release Prevention Requirements of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Risk Management Program (RMP) "to explicitly cover catastrophic reactive hazards that have the potential to seriously impact the public."

To call on the American Institute of Chemical Engineers' Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) to "publish comprehensive guidelines on model reactive hazardous management systems."

Up for debate

Since the report's publication, industry, labor and government have been vocal in their reactions to CSB's advice.

Eight international labor unions and the AFL-CIO recently petitioned OSHA to amend its PSM standard "to strengthen its regulation of reactive chemicals." An OSHA spokesperson told Chemical Processing the agency would review the petition and respond accordingly.

The unions filed the petition just one day before a June 10 roundtable, sponsored by CSB, OSHA and EPA, that invited industry, academia and labor to mull over OSHA and EPA regulatory possibilities for reactive hazard control.

Roundtable attendees "had a pretty lively debate," says Glenn Erwin, health and safety coordinator for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers International Union (PACE). PACE is one of the unions calling on OSHA to implement stronger reactives-related safeguards. "If we can just get OSHA to do it, we'd be in much better shape," Erwin contends.

The majority of roundtable attendees, however, view any potential reactives-related regulatory action with more than a little skepticism.

"This is something that would be extremely difficult to regulate because the possible combinations of chemicals that can cause reactions are way in the millions," emphasizes Tim Overton, director of The Dow Chemical Company's Process Safety Technology Center, Freeport, Texas, and a roundtable speaker. "I think there was a consensus ," not just by industry, but by everyone in the room ," that list-based regulation will never be 100 percent effective."

Dorothy Kellogg, leader of the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) Plant Operations Team, agrees with Overton. "From the presentation, there seemed to be agreement all around that any kind of regulatory action based on a simple list was really not going to work very well," she says.

As for amending the PSM, Kellogg says ACC is "skeptical" about OSHA's taking that direction. "We believe that identifying and managing chemical reactive hazards are covered under [OSHA's] General Duty Clause," she maintains. Any guidance or regulation deemed necessary probably should flow as elaboration from this clause, she adds.

Vanessa Rodriguez, a roundtable participant and a chemical engineer in EPA's Emergency Preparedness and Prevention Office, says discussions clearly showed "industry is concerned about the impact any new regulation might have on existing programs." Industry attendees urged EPA and OSHA to avoid a prescriptive approach, she says, and to allow the use of any existing best practices.

If EPA were to take regulatory action, Rodriquez says, that regulation "probably" would be modeled on RMP, which takes a performance-based approach and would permit industry to incorporate existing programs.

What now?

Daniel Horowitz, a CSB spokesperson, says the roundtable was not designed to "reach any kind of consensus," and that it resulted in no clear regulatory-related conclusions. However, the agencies and industry are a lot closer to implementing at least one of CSB's recommendations. OSHA and EPA, in conjunction with ACC and the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA), are underwriting the cost of making a new CCPS tool available to industry.

"One of the [report's] findings was that many of the reactive incidents were less a question of people not knowing what would happen because there wasn't information," explains Kellogg, "but instead the particular facility's not knowing how to access the information and use it." The CCPS tool, which consists of a book and a CD, is "sort of a decision tree," says Kellogg, and should help smaller firms and chemical users better identify potential chemical hazards.

"Over the next few years, as we push this tool out to people and people use it, it may help us as a society to determine what more is needed," explains Kellogg, "and, if more is needed, what it' is."

"Right now the thought proces is to get information out to the folks who are handling the hazards and make sure they recognize the hazard," adds EPA's Rodriquez.

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