This week OSHA expanded a two-year-old enforcement program aimed at preventing catastrophic release of highly hazardous chemicals—the type of headline-grabbing event that ruined thousands of lives in Bhopal in 1984 and was narrowly avoided in West Virginia in 2008. Originally targeted at just three regions (and optional for state-plan states in those regions), the National Emphasis Program for PSM Covered Chemical Facilities (aka “Chem NEP”) has now been expanded nationwide and requires all state-plan states to adopt their own version of the program. This is a good step toward addressing a serious problem.
In announcing the expansion of the NEP on Wednesday, OSHA chief David Michaels said that “far too many workers are injured and killed in preventable incidents at chemical facilities around the country,” and that inspections during the pilot period “found many of the same safety-related problems that were uncovered during OSHA’s NEP for the refinery industry, which is also covered by the PSM standard.” Those problems were most often issues with equipment and with operating procedures. Those sound like serious concerns, especially if the problems show up at similar incidence rates around the country as they did in the pilot NEP.
Chris Hamby, of the Center for Public Integrity, has pointed out a concern that’s not unique to this NEP, but is worth repeating: any facility that’s a part of the Voluntary Protection Program will get a pass on any programmed inspection that would fall under the NEP. That includes VPP sites where a total of 18 workers have died since 2000—hardly the “model workplaces” that ought to get such special treatment.
That said, as we wrote in our 2010 “Workers at Risk” white paper, OSHA is right to focus its inspection efforts on issues like process safety management (PSM). Although these inspections are much more time- and resource-intensive than many other workplace inspections, the lessons that can be learned from PSM inspections’ focus on processes and practices that ensure safe workplaces could have broader impacts than just improving the safety and health of workers on one particular site. In its current form, OSHA’s PSM standard applies only to processes that involve certain listed chemicals and only when those chemicals are used in quantities above a certain threshold. Yet many of the principles that shape the standard could be applied to other, less acutely hazardous industries.
OSHA could be a great source of information on this front, and at the same time partially respond to an open recommendation (#2001-01-H-2) from the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (better known as CSB). The new Chem NEP instructs OSHA’s inspectors to collect all incident reports that companies must maintain under the PSM standard. Under part (m) of the standard, companies must keep reports related to incidents that “resulted in, or could reasonably have resulted in a catastrophic release of highly hazardous chemicals in the workplace.” These accident and near-accident reports, if collected and analyzed at a national level, could answer CSB’s call for OSHA to
“Implement a program to define and record information on reactive incidents that OSHA investigates or requires to be investigated under OSHA regulations. Structure the collected information so that it can be used to measure progress in the prevention of reactive incidents that give rise to catastrophic releases.”
John Henshaw, who ran OSHA for George Bush from 2001 until 2004, declined to implement the recommendation when he received it from CSB. Now OSHA has the chance to do something positive. I hope it happens.