Federal Taskforce Identifies Ways to Improve Chemical Safety, Security

By Roy Maurer Jul 11, 2014

A federal interagency taskforce has proposed several changes to safeguard chemical industry workers and the facilities they work in, including modernizing regulatory standards, improving local first-responder emergency-preparedness policies, upgrading technology, and increasing monetary and criminal penalties for hazard violations.

The Chemical Facility Safety and Security Working Group, composed of officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), submitted a progress report in June 2014 to President Barack Obama identifying actions to increase the safety and security of chemical facilities and reduce risks associated with hazardous chemicals such as ammonium nitrate. President Obama issued an executive order on Aug. 1, 2013, directing the agencies to establish the working group to consider potential rulemaking and issue guidance, in response to the fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, in April 2013 that killed 15 people and injured hundreds more.

The report identifies priority actions in five broad areas, including improving data management, strengthening agency coordination and enhancing community emergency preparedness, but most importantly for employers, the report identifies proposed updates to chemical facility safety and security policy and regulations. These include:

Modernizing OSHA’s process safety management standard.OSHA intends to “clarify confusing and misunderstood policies” regarding the standard protecting workers from the hazards associated with uncontrolled releases of highly hazardous chemicals. A couple of these policies to be revised include the current interpretation of the exemption for “retail facilities” to more “accurately reflect the original intent of the exemption” and the current interpretation of chemical concentrations covered by the standard to more clearly describe what is covered and align with established best practices. As a next step toward developing a proposed rule to modernize the standard, OSHA will initiate a review to gather small business input.

Modernizing EPA’s risk management program regulation. The EPA is considering whether the list of chemicals covered by the regulation should be updated with the potential addition and deletion of chemicals and should reflect new information on existing chemicals. For example, the agency is considering whether reactives and explosives should be added to the regulated list. The agency also is considering adding new requirements for automated detection and monitoring systems, requiring facilities to track and conduct root cause analyses of frequent process upsets and near misses, requiring stop work authority for employees who witness an activity that creates a threat of danger, and strengthening contractor safety requirements. The EPA will publish a request for information this summer seeking public input on process safety and risk management issues.

Enhancing ammonium nitrate safety and security. Because of the hazardous nature of ammonium nitrate, the EPA, OSHA and the DHS all have regulations that govern its management.

OSHA requires safe storage and handling requirements in its explosives and blasting agents standard; the EPA requires facilities that handle ammonium nitrate to submit records to state and local officials and fire departments; and the DHS oversees the securing of certain facilities that sell and transfer ammonium nitrate to prevent misappropriation or use in acts of terrorism.

The taskforce assessed current regulations and developed a list of actions to improve the existing system of safeguards, including adding coverage of ammonium nitrate under the EPA’s risk management program and OSHA’s process safety management standard, focusing on the safe storage of the chemical through local emphasis programs, and proposing rules related to the screening threshold quantity for ammonium nitrate, which triggers facility reporting requirements.

Promoting safer technology and alternatives. Based on industry requests for nonregulatory preventive measures, the EPA and OSHA have developed a plan to encourage chemical facilities to integrate “safer technology and alternatives,” essentially risk reduction strategies using a hierarchy of controls, into a facility’s process safety programs.

The agencies also recommended developing guidance and outreach programs to help the industry understand process safety and security requirements and best practices on the one hand, and increasing OSHA monetary and criminal penalties to provide a credible deterrent on the other.

Where the group’s proposals go from here is unclear. “The issuance of the report is a milestone, not an endpoint,” the taskforce stated. “Agencies, in coordination with the broad range of stakeholders, have transitioned to implementation of these priority actions, which will be completed over time.”

Reactions Span the Gamut

The American Chemistry Council said in a news statement that its goals align with the president’s executive order and it was encouraged by the report’s incorporation of industry suggestions to improve regulatory coordination and information sharing, but it remained concerned about the promotion of “safer alternatives” and new regulations.

The council characterized the use of safer alternatives as having “the potential for creating an unnecessary layer of duplicative requirements that would only serve to create confusion for the regulated community and stretch agency resources.”

The National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD) similarly expressed support for better coordination among federal, state and local entities, as well as the recommendation to increase training and resources for local emergency response teams and compliance assistance such as the process safety management guidance for small businesses.

“However, we are concerned about the focus on increasing the scope and complexity of regulations. … NACD believes that the focus should be on reaching outlier facilities, not on increasing regulatory requirements for those who are already in compliance,” said NACD Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Jennifer Gibson.

The Coalition to Prevent Chemical Disasters, made up of more than 100 environmental and public health organizations, released a statement saying that the administration’s proposals are not strong enough. “The people of West, Texas, deserve better than the voluntary half-measures in [the] report. They, and millions of Americans like them, deserve real safeguards from the threat of chemical disasters that are adopted as enforceable requirements—not just voluntary recommendations that the industry can ignore until the next disaster.”

The coalition called for the implementation of new regulations within the next 18 months.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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