Experts Debate Regulation of Reactive Chemical Hazards

Next month, OSHA, EPA and the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) will co-sponsor a roundtable on reactive chemical process safety, a meeting that is intended to help the administration decide whether to regulate reactive hazards, as CSB has already recommended.

A roundtable on the same topic held last week at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce) suggests there is little consensus about how to deal with reactive chemical hazards.

At the May 15 AIHce roundtable, representatives from government, industry, labor and the academic world agreed on one point: reactive chemical incidents pose a significant safety problem that must be addressed.

But these experts were divided about how or whether to regulate reactive hazards, nor was there consensus about how to make information of these hazards more accessible to the public.

At the AIHce roundtable, CSB investigator Giby Joseph told attendees that according to CSB's investigation, since 1980 there have been 167 reactive chemical incidents in the United States, leading to108 fatalities, as well as many injuries and significant on-site and off-site property damage.

"We think the problem is significant," commented Pete Lodal, senior technical associate at Eastman Chemical Co. "The CSB report is the tip of the iceberg we think there's a lot more going on out there than has been reported."

During the roundtable, Lodal presented an industry approach designed to help companies screen for and manage reactive hazards, a multi-company project sponsored by the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS). The reactive chemical management tool developed by Lodal and a team of other experts has been published by CCPS and is titled Essential Practices for Managing Chemical Reactivity.

CSB investigators discovered that reactive incidents are not limited to chemical manufacturers: 30 percent of the 167 incidents occurred in storage facilities or at other stages in chemical processing.

CSB board member Andrea Kidd Taylor explained the board wants OSHA to broaden the application of its Process Safety Management standard to cover both individual chemicals and combinations of chemicals that can undergo hazardous reactions; a separate but similar recommendation was made to EPA, which does not regulate reactive chemicals in its Risk Management Program rule.

Both EPA and OSHA were also asked to collect additional reporting information on reactive incidents, because CSB investigators found that the lack of reliable and easily accessible data is hampering progress in preventing reactive incidents.

Michael Sprinker, director of health and safety at the International Chemical Workers Union Council (ICWUC), supported the call to regulate reactive chemical hazards. He noted that his union, along with many others, has petitioned OSHA for years to adopt a temporary emergency standard and to begin rulemaking.

"OSHA's response for a number of years was, 'studying the issue,'" said Sprinker. In 2001, it was dropped from the regulatory agenda.

Sam Mannan, professor of chemical engineering and director of Texas A&M University's Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center, disagreed about regulation.

Mannon asserted that almost every chemical process is potentially reactive, so it's not any specific chemical that creates the problem, but rather the varying circumstances of the process.

Simple and straightforward regulation will not work in this kind of situation, Mannon asserted. "It's not like setting a speed limit, it's more like, 'be safe,'" he argued. "I don't disagree that some kind of regulation may be needed, but I haven't yet found out what that regulation is."

Mannon advocated the establishment of a publicly available database containing testing information on reactive chemicals as well as incidents and near misses. He, along with Sprinker, also demanded greater "accountability" for chemical companies that willfully ignore safe practices.

Lodal explained a dilemma he believes is confronting many companies that want to address the problem of sharing reactive near miss information. When there is loss of life or serious injury, it must be reported, he explained. But companies worry that if they make public data about near misses, it could later be used against them legally in the event of a more serious incident.

"At some point we're going to have to make a fundamental philosophical decision: what's more important in protecting people the data or the ability to prosecute?"

He said there is currently a good deal of debate and disagreement within the chemical industry about the answer to this question.

"I guarantee you," Lodal continued, "that is the single biggest thing that prevents us from reporting things in a public setting the fear that somebody somewhere is going to use it against us."

The invitational roundtable sponsored by CSB, OSHA, and EPA is scheduled to take place June 10 in Washington, DC.

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