Fairfax: OSHA Plans PSM Inspections for Chemical Plants

In an exclusive interview with Occupational Hazards, Richard Fairfax, director of OSHA enforcement programs, said the agency intends to conduct a slew of complex process safety management inspections at chemical plants, but was uncertain when inspections could begin.

Fairfax said he originally planned to launch the National Emphasis Program (NEP) for the chemical industry in late summer or early fall of 2008, but now is unable to make the deadline because his resources are tied up investigating the Imperial Sugar refinery blast in Georgia. That explosion killed 13 workers and critically injured 11 others.

“This doesn't mean that I have stopped working on it,” Fairfax explained. “We will continue with it and when we are ready, we will launch it.”

Approximately 28,000 chemical plants operate throughout the country, and Fairfax said OSHA plans to randomly select facilities for inspection. These inspections will be similar to the OSHA inspection program for refineries, which began in June 2007.

He pointed out that under the OSHA refinery inspection program, the agency so far has inspected 53 of the 81 refineries it plans to investigate, and has issued 241 refinery violations. Eight-nine percent of those citations were serious and 93 percent were serious, willful or repeat violations. The average number of violations per refinery inspection was just over 12. By contrast, the average number of violations across the country is three.

According to Fairfax, the problem is not that refineries lack safety and health awareness. Instead, safety priorities often go to the backburner, as was the case with BP in Texas City, where a fatal blast killed 15 workers and injured 180 others in March 2005.

“Based on what we found at BP, I think they got into more of a production mode and the requirements of process safety management went to the back seat,” he said. “If you asked any safety and health professional at any of the refineries, I bet they would be willing to say that they are glad we are doing this [refinery emphasis program].

Fairfax, during the interview, responded to allegations that claim OSHA has not adequately been verifying injury and illness rates submitted by employers. Fairfax asserted that the team does record checks in each of the roughly 39,000 inspections they complete each year. He explained that “part of the job of a compliance officer is to evaluate records, and they are required to look at 3 years worth of recordkeeping.”

Fairfax added that while he does notice recordkeeping violations, he isn't about to issue citations for small mistakes.

“If somebody is making good faith effort and checks off the wrong box, I am not going to issue a citation for that,” he said. “In those cases, I have instructed our compliance officers to tell them what they did wrong and show them how to fix it.”

However, he added, “If we go out there and everything is in the wrong box or if it's obvious they haven't paid attention to it, then we issue citations. I am trying to get our people, in addition to providing assistance, to deal with the big stuff and not sweat the little things.”

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