Labor Groups Demand OSHA Regulate Reactive Chemicals

A coalition of eight international labor unions and the AFL-CIO filed a petition on June 9 requesting that OSHA amend the Process Safety Management (PSM) standard to include reactive chemical hazards.

The move came one day before a roundtable, sponsored by OSHA, EPA and the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), is held in Washington, DC to discuss CSB's similar recommendations, calling on OSHA to broaden the PSM standard to cover reactive hazards. OSHA had no immediate response to the petition.

Although OSHA acknowledges major deficiencies in its PSM standard, it has a long history of not responding to union requests to regulate reactive chemical hazards, and a more recent track record of missing a CSB deadline on the issue.

Two years after a 1995 labor-sponsored petition for emergency temporary rulemaking called for amending the PSM standard to include reactive chemical hazards, OSHA placed the proposal on its regulatory agenda. But the agency made little progress on the matter and in December 2001, removed it from the regulatory agenda.

In September 2002, CSB completed an investigation of reactive chemical incidents that showed, among other things, since 1980 there were an average of eight such incidents per year resulting in five fatalities annually along with serious injury, property damage and significant public impact to surrounding communities. As a result of its research findings, CSB recommended OSHA include reactive chemical hazards in its PSM standard.

OSHA missed the 120-day statutory deadline to respond to CSB's recommendations, and has instead organized the June 10 roundtable of stakeholders to discuss the problem.

At a press conference composed of the safety directors of four different labor organizations, as well as survivors of chemical explosions and fires, several union members expressed frustration at OSHA's failure to address the problem with regulations.

"It is utterly astonishing that OSHA still refuses to address this problem," asserted Eric Frumin, safety director for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. "We can't wait for OSHA to wait for a higher body count before it acts."

It can be a vexing problem to regulate reactive chemical because chemicals react differently depending on volume, heat and the nature of the process. The labor groups insisted they do not want OSHA to compose a list of reactive chemicals that is simply added to the current list of chemicals covered by the PSM rule.

The petition attempts to deal with the difficulty by calling on OSHA to broaden the definition of reactive chemicals to include:

  • Those chemicals having certain reactive characteristics by themselves or in combination with other chemicals;
  • Processes involving a flammable liquid or gas on-site, if the quantity exceeds 5000 lbs.;
  • Any process that results in a fire, explosion or toxic release as result of previously unknown chemical reactivity shall from that point forward be considered covered.

Companies would have to broaden the process safety information requirement to include more information on chemical reactivity and specifically to include reactive chemical qualitative risk assessments. The unions also want the PSM rule to include contractors, storage facilities and toll manufacturing, and would amend the management of change provisions to include changes in personnel and deviation from established procedure.

The Working Group on Community Right-to-Know, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resource Defense Council released a statement supporting the labor petition to OSHA. The groups also called on EPA to revise its Risk Management Plan program along the lines CSB has recommended.

Reactive chemical hazards arise from the manufacture of a range of widely used products, such as carpets, computers and Styrofoam cups, asserted Glenn Erwin, health and safety director of the Paper, Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers International Union.

"With some minor changes to the law," said Erwin, "I guess when we walk across the carpet, sit down at our computer and drink a cup of coffee we could be assured that nobody had to die or be injured in producing these products."

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