GAO: Multi-agency Regulations Confusing for HazMatFacilities

A recent report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that\r\nbetter coordination among federal agencies may help improve\r\nsafety at hazardous materials facilities.

A recent report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) found that better coordination among federal agencies who play a role in protecting workers exposed to hazardous materials may help improve safety at hazardous materials facilities.

OSHA, EPA, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) all play a role in efforts protecting the safety and health of workers at hazardous materials workplaces, which can range from chemical and oil processing plants to food distribution facilities.

However, GAO found that these agencies'' functions partially overlap in a number of areas and this overlap causes them to place duplicative requirements on employers.

"If not coordinated properly, the need to comply with multiple authorities may also cause employers an unnecessary burden and result in confusion that might actually endanger worker safety. Concerns have also been raised that there still may be regulatory gaps that leave some workers inadequately protected," said GAO.

The study was conducted at the request of Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections of the Committee on Education and the Workforce.

According to one recent study, between 1994 and 1999 hazardous material facilities in the United States experienced almost 2,000 major chemical release accidents, causing 33 worker deaths and more than 1,800 worker injuries.

Specifically, GAO assessed the extent to which agencies have overlapping statutory authority or procedures, employers'' and workers'' experiences with multiagency efforts to protect workplace safety and health at hazardous materials facilities, and the extent to which agencies coordinate their enforcement efforts and communicate to employer the nature of their coordinated efforts.

To determine the impact of multi-agency safety and health regulations at selected hazardous material facilities, GAO contacted 40 facilities in nine states.

Of these facilities, 31 had been subject to inspections by both EPA and OSHA during 1998 and 1999, or an investigation by CSB and at least one other agency in review in response to an incident involving the accidental leak of hazardous materials.

GAO found that EPA, OSHA and ATF regulate many of the same materials.

For example, it found that approximately 29 percent of the hazardous materials covered by one EPA statute are also covered by OSHA and ATF under other statutes.

OSHA and EPA also place similar requirements on employers for training workers and developing plans for responding to emergencies.

Although the overlapping requirements from these agencies may help to ensure coverage of most types of dangers posed by hazardous materials, GAO believes this overlapping can also lead to confusion and an additional compliance burden.

GAO said it will make recommendations to OSHA, EPA, ATF and CSB "to improve the coordination of their overlapping functions in ways that enhance worker protection and reduce employer regulatory burden."

All four agencies gave GAO written comments on a draft of the report.

OSHA, EPA and CSB made specific reference to GAO''s recommendations and did not object to them.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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