Y2K Focus on Smaller Chemical Facilities Increases

It's little surprise that 18- to 34-year-olds are at the heart of a nationwide increase in illegal drug use, and the manufacturing industry traditionally draws heavily from this pool of job seekers.

Government agencies and other groups are increasing efforts to avert or minimize the Year 2000 technology bug's affect on industrial chemical safety, especially at small- and mid-sized facilities.

With about five months left before 2000, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) has sent a letter to the 50 state governors urging them to take action now to be ready for any emergency issues that might arise as a result of the Y2K bug. "The largest responsibility for public health and safety will reside at the state and local level, particularly the emergency response community," states the letter from CSB member Gerald V. Poje, Ph.D.

Smaller chemical facilities are more likely to be at risk because many have less awareness of chemical safety in general and the Y2K impact in particular. In addition, these facilities may lack financial resources and technical know-how for fixing the problems. Poje wrote that "addressing this situation requires a massive effort" that should focus on providing easy-to-use awareness and assessment tools and training, promoting accessible resources and providing attractive incentives for Y2K compliance efforts.

Meanwhile, government agencies, in partnership with several chemical trade associations, have issued a 15-page brochure offering Y2K help to smaller businesses. The document provides general guidelines only; its authors state that site-specific applications of the guidelines will depend on the unique characteristics of the facility.

Earlier this year, a workshop of Y2K and chemical safety experts, convened at the request of the U.S. Senate, warned that the most likely source of a major accident is the noncompliance of small- and mid-sized enterprises. The group called on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop outreach campaigns, including informational brochures like the one released, to improve Y2K awareness at these facilities.

The brochure describes a five-step process for protecting the continuity of safety systems in chemical plants from potential Y2K problems. It also offers appendices containing additional information resources, hazard assessment tools and critical dates to check for problems in the Y2K time line.

Identifying safety-related systems and equipment that could fail with the date change is the first step in becoming Y2K compliant, and the document offers a checklist of areas that could be vulnerable to disruption. The new millennium threatens to disrupt not only computers, but any equipment containing microchips, such as heating, lighting, safety and telecommunications systems, according to the authors. In addition, external failures in the local electric or water utility systems threaten chemical plants.

Correcting a potential problem and testing the solution come next, and the brochure offers a number of suggestions to encourage and assist safety professionals. For example, the authors note that EPA intends to waive all civil penalties and to recommend against criminal prosecution for environmental violations caused by tests to eliminate Y2K-related malfunctions.

Developing a contingency plan and communicating with all interested parties are the final steps in the recommended procedure. The document warns that Y2K disruptions could prevent police, fire and emergency health workers from arriving promptly or at all.

Copies of the brochure are available at the CSB Web site: www.chemsafety.gov.

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