Panel Declares OSHA’s Inaction on Industrial Chemical Safety ‘Unacceptable’

By Roy Maurer Jul 31, 2013

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) officially declared the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) response to seven recommendations on standards for combustible dust, fuel gas and process safety management to be “unacceptable.”

The board also voted unanimously at a July 25, 2013, public meeting in Washington, D.C., to make the adoption of a combustible dust standard for general industry the first priority in a stepped-up advocacy program.

“Over the years, the CSB has made a number of recommendations to OSHA in the aftermath of tragic accidents that have killed dozens of workers, injured hundreds more, and caused millions of dollars in property damage,” said CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso. “Yet insufficient progress has been made, and many years have passed in some cases, without a definitive OSHA response. Today’s vote by the board designating OSHA’s responses to be ‘open-unacceptable’ means that we strongly believe these recommended regulatory changes are still needed to save lives and prevent accidents in the chemical industry,” he said.

The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. The board does not issue citations or fines but instead makes safety recommendations to companies, industry organizations, labor groups and regulatory agencies such as OSHA.

CSB member Mark Griffon said that to “just blame OSHA” for a rulemaking delay does not address the root cause of the delays. He quoted a recent Government Accountability Office report that found that it took OSHA more than eight years, on average, to develop a safety standard. “We, the CSB, need to look into this, why it takes so long to issue safety standards and what can the CSB do to address this problem,” he said.

Recommendations at Issue

Largely addressing deficiencies in OSHA’s process safety management (PSM) standard, the recommendations are:

  • To ensure coverage under the PSM standard for atmospheric storage tanks that could be involved in a potential catastrophic release. The recommendation was issued in 2002, following the CSB’s investigation of an explosion of a poorly maintained, corroded storage tank containing spent sulfuric acid and flammable hydrocarbons at the Motiva refinery in Delaware City, Del., in 2001. A worker conducting hot work—which ignited vapor through holes in the deteriorated tank—died after the tank exploded.
  • To revise the PSM standard to require management of change reviews for organizational actions such as mergers and acquisitions that may affect process safety. This recommendation, issued in 2007, followed explosions and a fire at the BP Texas City, Texas, refinery in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others. CSB said the merger of BP and Amoco led to layoffs of safety personnel and degradation of the PSM function at the facility.
  • That OSHA issue a fuel gas safety standard for construction and general industry. This recommendation, issued in June 2010, followed two catastrophic accidents that occurred that year: An explosion caused by a worker attempting to purge new natural gas piping during the installation of an industrial water heater at the ConAgra Slim Jim facility in Garner, N.C., killing four workers and injuring 67, and high-pressure natural gas that ignited after being released in a congested outdoor area at the Kleen Energy power plant in Middletown, Conn., killing six workers and injuring at least 50.

The board then voted that OSHA’s response to long-standing recommendations calling for the issuance and expedited action on a comprehensive general industry standard on combustible dust was “open-unacceptable.”

The first of these recommendations was issued in 2006, following a CSB study on the hazards of combustible dust conducted after a series of explosions and fires. The board recommended a new regulation be based on existing National Fire Protection Association standards.

Three years later, in 2009, following an explosion at the Imperial Sugar Company in Port Wentworth, Ga., that killed 14 workers in 2008, the CSB called on OSHA to “proceed expeditiously” on its then-announced intention to conduct rulemaking on a dust standard.

In December 2011, the CSB again called on OSHA to move on a dust standard, following a series of three iron-dust related flash fires at the Hoeganaes Corp. facility in Gallatin, Tenn., where five workers were killed.

“The board has called on OSHA a number of times over the past several years to act on this known, insidious hazard that continues to claim the lives of workers and cause enormous damage and loss of jobs. It’s critical that OSHA address the recommendations,” said Moure-Eraso.

OSHA Response: Resources Are Limited

Thomas Galassi, OSHA’s director of enforcement programs, responded at the meeting that the agency is committed to addressing each of the hazards, though its standard-setting resources are limited and must be prioritized.

“OSHA cares deeply about the safety and health of all workers, and we act aggressively to enforce all of the standards impacting the process industries,” he said, also noting that “the health and safety of workers in America is ultimately the employer’s responsibility.”

Galassi testified that OSHA considers a number of factors before deciding to address a hazard by promulgating a new standard, including:

  • The estimated time it takes to issue a final OSHA standard.
  • The existing applicable OSHA standards.
  • The usefulness of OSHA’s general duty clause for addressing particular hazards.
  • The effectiveness of training, education, consultation and outreach efforts.

“Rulemaking, therefore, is a tool reserved for the most dangerous and widespread hazards,” he said.

Regarding the CSB’s specific recommendations, Galassi said that:

  • OSHA is considering inserting questions about the PSM standard for covering atmospheric storage tanks and management of change reviews in a request for information that it says will be released in October 2013. Galassi also said that OSHA’s PSM standard already requires employers to develop and implement management of change reviews.
  • OSHA believes that fuel gas safety regulations are not the best option at this time. “OSHA believes that the country is well-served by the current framework of building and mechanical codes … that have been incorporated by reference in many jurisdictions.” Galassi said that given OSHA’s finite resources and its regulatory priorities, promulgating a fuel gas standard would be futile.
  • OSHA strongly agrees that a federal combustible dust hazard standard is needed, and a small business review panel is scheduled to begin a review in November 2013.

Meanwhile, OSHA has initiated a national emphasis program for dust that has led to 3,700 inspections and 14,000 violations cited, as well as 30,000 copies of a bulletin on the hazard sent out. It also has issued a new hazard communication standard that requires combustible dust hazards to be disclosed on labels and safety data sheets, Galassi said.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.

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