Stakeholders Debate How to Regulate Reactive Chemicals

June 12, 2003
A government-sponsored roundtable devoted to the management of reactive chemical hazards attracted a broad cross section of chemical industry stakeholders and revealed a rough consensus that some form of regulation is needed to address the problem.

But major disagreements emerged about how to craft such a standard, some industry groups voiced opposition, and there were signs that the issue is not a top rulemaking priority for OSHA.

Scores of representatives from industry, labor and environmental groups met in Washington, DC for the one-day meeting, which was organized by the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), OSHA, and EPA to discuss CSB's recommendations that OSHA amend its Process Safety Management (PSM) standard to include reactive chemical hazards, and that EPA improve its data collection.

According to rules established by CSB, reporters attending the roundtable were not permitted to attribute quotes to specific persons.

"We didn't get any significant disagreements from big corporations [concerning CSB's regulatory proposal] mainly because they're already doing it," commented a CSB member near the end of the meeting.

But business was by no means united about the need for reactive chemical regulation.

A representative from a small business trade association voiced a dissenting view, preferring that the government focus on outreach and education, rather than regulation, to address the problem. Other industry trade association representatives privately expressed opposition to rulemaking.

OSHA itself has shown little interest in tackling the problem. Petitioned by labor groups in 1995 to issue an emergency standard on reactive chemicals, the agency made little progress and in 2001 removed the issue from its regulatory agenda.

During the roundtable, an OSHA official emphasized the technical difficulties of this particular rule as well as the enormous legal hurdles involved in all rulemaking.

In a development at the beginning of the day, OSHA may have tipped its hand that when it comes to reactive chemical hazards, it intends to favor outreach and guidance over rulemaking. The Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) recently published a new best practices document on managing reactive chemical hazards, and moments before the rulemaking roundtable began, OSHA announced it would work with CCPS to make the contents of the document available to the public free of charge.

All participants at the roundtable agreed that workers and managers needed to have more access to training and knowledge of reactive hazards. But members of labor and environmental groups were more insistent that this did not preclude work on a new standard.

"CCPS books are great," commented one stakeholder. "But some people obviously aren't reading it, so some degree of adult supervision is required."

Labor representatives at the roundtable recounted the continuing death and injury toll of reactive hazards and expressed impatience with OSHA's failure to regulate reactive hazards.

"It's time you get off your butts and act," thundered one labor representative.

The day before the roundtable, a coalition of eight international labor unions and the AFL-CIO filed a petition requesting that OSHA amend the PSM standard to include reactive chemical hazards.

After morning presentations from industry, labor and academic representatives concerning the management of reactive chemical hazards, stakeholders spent the afternoon discussing the technical difficulties of regulating the substances.

Although CSB called for amending the existing PSM standard, some representatives said it would be better to create a new stand-alone regulation.

Another issue that provoked debate was whether to take a performance-based or prescriptive approach to the problem. While there was general agreement that simply adding a list of reactive chemicals would not be effective, some participants argued that a list in combination with other criteria could work. Just what those criteria might be engendered much discussion, and little agreement.

The crux of the matter appeared to be how to write a regulation that would capture a majority of reactive chemical hazards, without burdening chemical companies that don't face such issues.

At the close of the meeting, a CSB staff member with some rulemaking experience attempted to sum up the results of the roundtable.

"Given the range of disagreement around this table, it's not fair to expect OSHA and EPA to come back with a [regulatory] proposal," said the staff member. "People here ought to continue to talk, refine the arguments and give them some specific ideas of what will fly."

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