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Process Safety: Focusing in on Reactive Chemicals

OSHA's process safety management standard has improved chemical safety, but the agency is studying new requirements for reactive chemicals.

Given the growing anti-regulatory atmosphere in Washington and elsewhere, it almost sounds like a "dog bites man" story: Major stakeholders say there's lots to like about OSHA's process safety management (PSM) standard. The purpose of the rule is to prevent or minimize the consequences of catastrophic releases of toxic, reactive, flammable or explosive chemicals.

As the standard enters its 10th year of enforcement, observers say the rule is entering a new phase. Many of the big issues have been taken care of, and the concerns of companies and regulators are shifting. Perhaps precisely because of PSM's success in improving chemical safety, remaining problems -- most notably, reactive chemical hazards -- stand out more clearly.

The Good News

Reliable and comprehensive data on chemical safety are hard to come by, despite recent efforts by organizations such as the U.S. Chemical Hazard and Investigation Board, the American Chemistry Council and the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center. There appears to be an emerging consensus, however, that widespread use of PSM programs has improved chemical safety in the United States, especially since 1992 when OSHA began to enforce 29 CFR 1910.119, "Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals." For example, one OSHA source referred to a 1998 study by J&H Marsh & McLennan Consulting Services, "Large Property Damage Losses in the Hydrocarbon-Chemical Industries: A Thirty-year Review."

The report states that, from 1992 through 1996, "there has been a sharp drop" in the number of property damage losses and the dollar amount of each loss. "In the United States and other countries, the implementation of process safety management programs has very likely contributed to the decrease in both the number of losses and the dollar amount of each loss."

Praise for OSHA's standard extends to safety managers who have experience complying with the rule. "It's absolutely a major success," said Charles Mendenhall, corporate safety manager at Lubrizol, an international specialty chemical company based in Wickliffe, Ohio.

Jennifer Holub, Lubrizol's corporate process safety manager, explained that the rule helped the company formalize many things it was already doing. As an example, she noted that Lubrizol broadened its process hazards analysis to meet the letter of the law. "Whenever you have a regulatory mandate, things happen easier in a corporation. Resources get justified, and it helps us to do our job."

There is considerable overlap between OSHA's PSM standard and two Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules: the risk management program under the Clean Air Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. OSHA and EPA officials assert they have worked hard to coordinate their interpretation of the rules so companies do not have to comply with the similar rules in completely different ways. People in industry give the two agencies high marks on this score.

"There are a few differences in the details, but for the most part, there's good agreement so that compliance with PSM equals compliance with EPA rules," said George King, process safety associate at Dow Chemical's Process Safety Technology Center in Freeport, Texas.

King said the PSM rule addressed all the right elements and helped to improve process safety performance at his company by raising awareness about the issue. He also liked the flexibility that follows from the fact that the PSM rule is a performance-based standard, because it makes it easier for companies to go beyond mere compliance with a rigid rule.

"PSM encourages some companies to explore new ways of doing things, to develop best practices that they might not do if it were a more prescriptive rule," King said.

For example, Dow has developed a number of different process hazard analysis (PHA) tools. The company uses simple PHA methods to assess all its processes so as to identify those operations that present higher risks or hazards. "For these higher-risk unit operations, we apply more sophisticated tools. This way, we focus our resources where they will do the most good," he explained.

John Ferris, a chemical engineer at EPA, made the same point a slightly different way. "If a facility just strictly follows a regulation, then the people at those facilities are assuming that I, as the writer of the rule, know how to be safe better than they do."

Reactive Chemicals

Reactive chemicals are substances that, without proper controls, can have undesirable effects, such as "runaway" pressure buildup or temperature increase. OSHA's PSM rule lists some reactive chemicals, but many observers believe the list leaves out a number of potentially dangerous reactives. As a result, many chemical processes with reactive hazards are not covered by the PSM rule.

"It's easy to point out the problems with OSHA's use of lists for reactive hazards," said Irv Rosenthal, board member of the U.S. Chemical Hazard and Investigation Board (CSB). "It's much harder to put forward a practical alternative."

Coming up with a practical alternative is precisely what government, industry and labor experts have been trying to do since an April 1995 explosion destroyed much of Napp Technologies' Lodi, N.J., plant, killing five workers and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

In an indication of the importance of this issue, even without an OSHA administrator in place, the agency announced in May it is undertaking two regulatory actions to update chemicals covered in its PSM standard. In November, the agency plans to publish an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to address the need to add reactive chemicals not covered by the rule. Also covered by ANPR is the need to revise the language of the rule to clarify OSHA's intent to cover flammable liquids stored in atmospheric tanks connected to a process.

A second action announced by OSHA is a proposal to add chemicals not originally included in the list of highly hazardous chemicals but that were included in EPA's risk management program rule.

Part of the problem at Napp was that the chemicals being used were not on OSHA's list of reactive chemicals, so the PSM standard did not apply. The chemicals were mixed together, some water leaked in, and there was a runaway reaction of stunning magnitude.

"It can be difficult to say what combination of chemicals you need to look at," said Michael Sprinker, director of the health and safety department at the International Chemical Workers Union (ICWU). "It's a very difficult problem to regulate."

Soon after the Napp explosion, ICWU joined a number of other labor unions led by the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees to request an emergency standard that would address reactive chemicals. "We'd like to see a rule that would require employers to evaluate the potential for a runaway reaction," Sprinker said. "Some companies are already doing this, and a lot are not."

For example, King said, Dow has been including reactive chemicals analyses as part of its PHAs for a long time.

"The problem is complicated because even less reactive chemicals may become dangerous depending on how they are used. We found that out at Napp," an OSHA source said. The chemicals used there were only listed as one and two on the National Fire Protection Association classification system, where four is the most reactive.

Sprinker suggested that, instead of trying to make a list of reactive chemicals, OSHA should consider a generic control standard, listing generic properties of chemicals that need to be investigated as potential reactive hazards.

Reactive chemical incidents have killed 105 people and caused serious harm in at least 170 cases since 1980, according to John Murphy, a chemical incident investigator at CSB, which is conducting a special hazard investigation on reactive chemicals. Murphy emphasized that these figures are preliminary and the numbers could change as research proceeds.

After determining the impact of reactive chemical incidents and examining how industry and government are addressing these hazards, CSB intends to develop recommendations for reducing the number and severity of reactive chemical incidents. The agency will hold public hearings on its report this fall in Washington.

Enforcement Trends

The most frequently cited portion of the PSM standard is paragraph "f" on operating procedures. This paragraph requires the employer to develop and implement written procedures that provide clear instructions for operating all phases of the chemical process covered by the rule. An OSHA official who enforces the rule explained: "I tell all my compliance officers, 'When you go and inspect these guys, you'll see a whole lot of paper, but not a whole lot of implementation.'"

Michael Balmert, senior engineer at Science Applications, a consulting and contracting firm based in La Jolla, Calif., agrees. "Companies are endorsing PSM on paper -- sometimes only on paper," he said. Balmert attributes these endorsements to the OSHA standard and called it a step in the right direction, because it makes it easier for him to sell the value of actually doing PSM.

Experts contend the real backbone of the standard is paragraph "e" on PHA, the second most frequently cited portion of the rule.

Paragraph "e" calls on the employer to perform an initial process hazard analysis on those processes covered by the standard. "I'd say the failure to do PHA is a causal factor in almost all incidents," said an OSHA enforcement official. The second key causal factor is incident investigation, according to the official.

"All the major accidents in the past 13 years have had precursors," the OSHA official said. "The process was talking to them. Had they listened, they could have prevented the problem."

Experts such as Deborah Roy, CSP, president of SafeTech Consultants in South Portland, Maine, pointed out that many companies believe that if they comply with PSM, they can ignore several other standards meant to supplement 29 CFR 1910.119 (see "OSHA: 'There's Some Confusion Out There'" on the next page).

OSHA enforcement of the PSM standard has remained fairly consistent since 1992, despite the great demands the technically challenging rule imposes on the agency's limited resources.

OSHA has averaged about 100 PSM inspections a year since enforcement began nine years ago. The average hours spent on a PSM inspection is 279, while the average general industry safety inspection last year required only 22 hours.

While Sprinker and other observers believe OSHA is doing the best it can with its limited resources, Roy thinks the enforcement effort is not sufficient. She works all over the country and has observed that PSM enforcement varies greatly from state to state and region to region. "In some states, federal OSHA has no one trained in PSM," she said.

Retaining engineers with the requisite technical expertise is a big part of the problem, according to Peter Howell, a professional engineer who works as a consultant for Mark V of Hurricane, W.Va. "You don't find many engineers who can enforce PSM working for OSHA. Private industry can pay them so much more," he said.

Roy lamented how little OSHA can do in the way of preventive enforcement. Since enforcement of 1910.119 began, unprogrammed inspections, usually in response to an incident or a complaint at a facility, have outnumbered planned inspections 3-to-1. She said a more creative approach to enforcement is called for, such as a national partnership or special emphasis program focusing on PSM.

PSM: The Next Generation?

Lester Wittenberg, formerly the manager of the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS), said he believes that, thanks to the OSHA rule, many companies are entering a new phase in process safety management. "They've taken care of the big problems," he said. "Now they're asking narrower questions like how to design a process that's inherently safer, and everybody's concerned about reactives."

OSHA enforcement has also entered "a second generation," according to one official. "We hit chemicals and petrochemicals in the first round. Now we're moving on to the information and food processing industries, where there are refrigeration systems on an industrial scale."

The risks associated with tolling, or contracting operations (a key factor in the Napp explosion), and the management of change are two other emerging issues frequently mentioned by experts in the field.

Wittenberg said that, when one company contracts with another, communication about all relevant chemical hazards is essential. "At Napp, they were blending a product for another manufacturer, and they probably didn't realize the product was very reactive to water," he said. The explosion at Napp occurred when some water leaked into the process.

Tolling and the management of change are problems tied to continuing competitive pressures faced by many companies.

"Once you begin to manage actively and document all the changes you make, it is surprising how much change is going on," Lubrizol's Holub said. "It's understandable that things can slip through the cracks if you're not very diligent."

The Rosenthal Question

The toughest, most intractable obstacle to safer chemical operations may be, as usual, human nature itself.

"The big question is how do you get people to do that which they already know they ought to do," said Irv Rosenthal, a CSB board member.

There is no simple answer to Rosenthal's query. Increasingly, keeping workers and managers well-informed and alert is winning a good deal of attention. Wittenberg said CCPS is writing guidelines on how to help operators stay alert.

Sprinker thinks most chemical explosions could be avoided if workers, as well as managers, exercised three rights: the right to know, the right to act and the right to refuse dangerous work.

King said these rights are part of the work environment at Dow, but Sprinker pointed to Canada, where the rights are legally guaranteed.

Lee Anderson, CIH, and Mike McDonald, OHST, explained how the Lockheed Martin Systems Integration facility at Owego, N.Y., tackles "The Rosenthal Question." Lockheed is primarily a defense contractor, and the Owego facility is a Star member of the Voluntary Protection Program.

Each year, the plant performs a safety and health program review to monitor how effectively the program is working. "For example, we get feedback from employees on how well PPE is working, and we look to see whether or not it's being used," Anderson said.

In addition, there is also peer review and oversight performed by safety and health professionals who come into the plant from other facilities. "It's helpful to have another set of eyes," Anderson said. "We learn from one another about hazards we may have ignored."

Learning to address hazards that may have been overlooked or ignored is perhaps the essence of process safety management.

Balmert thinks that as companies learn more about PSM, they move more aggressively to implement it because they recognize how it can improve safety and overall business performance.

"I think the PSM standard is changing the culture of companies little by little," he said. "It's a big world and a complex standard. It's not happening all at once and not everywhere, but companies are getting better because they find PSM has real value."

OSHA: "There's Some Confusion Out There"

"People think that if they comply with PSM, they don't need to comply with other general industry supplemental standards," said an OSHA official deeply involved in the enforcement of process safety management (PSM) standard 29 CFR 1910.119. In fact, if you have to comply with PSM, the odds are you have to comply with a number of other standards as well. Examples include 29 CFR 1910.120 on hazardous waste operations and emergency response, 29 CFR 1910.103 on compressed gases, 29 CFR 1910.103 on hydrogen and 29 CFR 1910.104 on oxygen.

Deborah Roy, CSP, president of SafeTech Consultants in South Portland, Maine, said the most important -- and the most overlooked -- of these supplemental standards is hazardous waste operations and emergency response.

Part of the problem may be OSHA's flagging enforcement effort. A second factor may be getting the resources needed to keep an emergency response effort up-to-date.

Lubrizol, an Ohio-based international specialty chemical company, has built its emergency response program right into its management system at all 30 of its facilities. After an extensive third-party review, the American Chemistry Council has recognized the company on its program.

"Getting your senior management prepared takes a lot of time," said Charles Mendenhall, Lubrizol's corporate safety manager. "What's tough about emergency response is you spend a lot of time and money hoping never to use it."

Critical components of Lubrizol's program:

  • Extensive community outreach;
  • Deep upper-management commitment and involvement;
  • Mock drills and constant training with the local community; and
  • An emergency management center with written operating procedures, media contacts and spokespersons.

"In the event of an emergency, our position is we have to be ready to hit the ground running," Mendenhall said.

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