Industry Steps up Safety Efforts

Nov. 15, 2002

Chemical engineers and management strive to maintain safe processes not only for the sake of their employees and surrounding communities, but also to remain in compliance with regulatory and other programs. However, when chemical facilities stop actively striving to improve their safety practices, they can fall behind and subsequently pay the price.

For example, a Louisiana-based plastics firm recently was fined more than $300,000 for exposing employees to safety hazards. In another instance, a chemical company was fined $139,500 for failure to implement standards that protect workers against hazardous chemicals in one of its process units.

All plants could improve their safety programs to some extent. Unfortunately, it sometimes takes a major explosion or fire with injuries to refocus attention to the importance of good safety practices. A number of recent industry initiatives are making it clear that safety must remain at the forefront of all processes.

Getting certified

A new certification program called Responsible Care,"ISO 14001, or RC 14001, combines elements of the American Chemistry Council's (ACC) Responsible Care initiative with the environmental management system (EMS) established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The result is an EMS that has a built-in safety component, something that was missing from the ISO program, according to Bob Gilbertsen, program manager for ENSR International, Warrenville, Ill.

"[Many of our customers] would often build small work-around solutions," says Gilbertsen, "because the ISO 14001 [program], by itself, didn't do enough for them. The nice thing about RC 14001 is that it finally sets in writing what we've been doing for years ," and that's to develop an integrated system that gives full coverage of health, safety and environment."

In addition, RC 14001 is a way to "better focus the industry's efforts toward a true third-party certification of a company's Responsible Care program," says Brad Verrico, vice president of Verrico Associates LLC, Newark, Del.

The Elastocell unit of BASF Corp.'s polyurethanes business in Wyandotte, Mich., became the first company to achieve RC 14001 certification ," a feat the company announced last August. Arch Chemicals, Rochester, N.Y., will be the next plant to pilot this program, says Verrico.

Government at work

Government is also stepping up to the plate with a spate of new safety initiatives. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. (SPI) announced in September an alliance to promote safe and healthful workplaces in SPI member facilities. Member employers will be provided with information and guidance to help them protect employees, particularly in the identification and elimination of hazards that are likely to result in amputations and other injuries.

"Alliances such as this one are the cornerstone in our efforts to enlist the business community's help in making sure workplaces are safe and healthy," says OSHA Administrator John L. Henshaw. "We must work together for the common good ," that of reducing injuries and illnesses in the workplace across the board."

The alliance comes on the heels of OSHA's August announcement of its restructuring and realignment. The reorganization includes the consolidation of the Directorates of Safety and Health Standards into one unified organization that will address both regulatory and nonregulatory approaches for safety and health standards and guidelines. This change streamlines OSHA rulemaking by integrating all safety and health standards development activities within one organization.

OSHA also is committed to safety-related investments. The agency announced the distribution of grant money totaling more than $11 million to 64 nonprofit organizations for safety and health training programs. Primary areas of emphasis for the grants are ergonomics, workplace emergency response and training for small businesses and non-English speaking workers. Many of the grants include the development of training materials, which can be incorporated into another company's training programs.

Taking ownership

Employee safety used to be the responsibility of plant management ," and only plant management. Today, employees are becoming more proactive and even taking the lead in safety activities.

"A number of companies that we've worked with within the chemical industry have decided to take an approach to work hand in hand with folks like OSHA and others to voluntarily improve their safety systems," explains Verrico.

This voluntary involvement has trickled down to individual plant employees. "The number one thing I've seen change in the industry in the past five years is more direct employee ownership of those programs," Verrico adds. "In other words, it's no longer just these management-driven programs, but these employee-owned behavioral safety initiatives, voluntary protection initiatives and, yes, certainly more investment in that employee-owned activity." CP

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