Could New Regulations Prevent Uncontrolled Chemical Reactions?

This is one of the biggest questions confronting the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), after the agency's investigators unveiled the findings of a two-year study into reactive chemical incidents.

In a May 30 public meeting held in Paterson, N.J., CSB investigators announced they had identified 167 significant reactive chemical incidents since 1980 that caused 108 deaths to workers and the public. More than half the incidents involved chemicals not covered by OSHA's Process Safety Management (PSM) standard or EPA's Risk Management Program.

In addition to the report from its own investigators, board members also heard from representatives of organized labor and public interest groups, who support tougher reactive chemical rules. Don Connelly of Akzo Nobel, representing the American Chemistry Council, said voluntary guidance and better training were the "best way to minimize chemical reactivity incidents." Connelly said he was prepared to consider a regulatory performance-based program could in the future.

In an interview after the meeting, board member Gerald Poje said the CSB had not yet reached consensus on how to respond to its staff report. The board has the authority to recommend that OSHA or EPA consider new regulations on reactive chemicals. Last December OSHA dropped reactive chemicals from its regulatory agenda.

"I think we are significantly concerned, based on the staff report, about the inadequacies of the current regulatory coverage of reactive chemical hazards," said Poje. "It is impossible to solve this complex problem with a fixed list of chemicals--a significant weakness of the current PSM standard."

In the case of reactive chemicals, however, it may be easier to point to the problems of existing rules than to come up with a solution. There are thousands of chemicals that are self-reactive or that can be reactive when combined with other chemicals. If the approach of compiling a list of highly reactive chemicals is discarded, it is not clear what method will take its place.

"Our hope is that we will reach consensus and make our final recommendations sometime this summer," said Poje.

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