OSHA Rejects Fire Prevention Technology

May 29, 2008
A manufacturer that claims its technology could have prevented the fatal Feb. 7 Imperial Sugar Refinery explosion in Port Wentworth, Ga., has been denied by OSHA a permanent variance on its patented fire prevention technology. OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. published an interpretation letter clarifying the agency’s position.

New York-based FirePASS Corp. reached out to Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who then sent a letter to OSHA asking Foulke to explain why the agency denied granting the company a permanent variance on its patented hypoxic air system. Without a variance, engineers cannot or will not recommend a product or technology.

According to FirePASS Vice President Bill Costello, this technology is the next stage in the development of fire protection systems. It creates an environment similar to commercial airline cabins during flight, in which the air is safe to breathe but prevents fire ignition in common materials.

“By ventilating a space with precisely controlled hypoxic (oxygen reduced) air, a breathable yet fire preventative atmosphere is achieved,” reads the text of FirePASS's Web site that describes the technology.

Hypoxic air is a reduced-oxygen concentration that is introduced mechanically into the air on a constant basis to create an air oxygen level between 15-16 percent. However, Foulke’s letter stated that OSHA's Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134) uses 19.5 percent oxygen as the level below which an oxygen-deficient atmosphere exists and requires, generally, that all oxygen-deficient atmospheres be considered immediately dangerous to life or health. The standard also requires employees to wear a supplied side air respirator in atmospheres with oxygen content of less than 19.5 percent by volume. Costello explained, however, that the use of respirators is not necessary with FirePASS technology.

FirePASS has proposed several alternative measures of protection, according to Foulke, which include recommending employees who suffer from respiratory diseases not to enter the environment without their doctor's permission or wear a supplemental oxygen mask. The company also recommends that employees between the ages of 40-65 should wear a pulse oximeter for the first week to monitor their SPO2.

“In its variance application, FirePASS proposed to expose employees to an oxygen-deficient atmosphere without providing them with the respirators required by the Standard,” Foulke said in his letter. “Under the [Occupational Safety and Health] OSH Act, FirePASS must set forth a means of compliance that provides the same level of safety as the standard.

Company Wants Respiratory Standard Revisited

When OccupationalHazards.com contacted Costello for comment on OSHA's interpretation letter, he said there are many “discrepancies in OSHA's interpretation of the respiratory protection standard.”

OSHA uses metrics that include partial pressure of oxygen – reflecting oxygen availability to the respiratory system – to determine when, in terms of percent oxygen and altitude, employees can safely escape from an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, should their respiratory protection equipment fail to function.

In his letter, Foulke said the agency recognizes that the partial pressure of oxygen decreases with increasing altitude under ambient air conditions. As long as the percent of oxygen by volume remains at least 19.5, OSHA permits employees to work at altitudes up to 14,000 feet without respiratory protection even though the partial pressure of oxygen is less than it is at sea level. Typical sea level atmosphere contains 20.9 percent of oxygen by volume.

Costello argues that FirePASS's technology would abide by OSHA's standards because measurements taken by the partial pressure of oxygen show the actual amount of oxygen available to the respiratory system and reflect exact decreases with increasing altitude under ambient air conditions. He also said that the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have stated that partial pressure of oxygen as the most important factor affecting a person's health.

For instance, he claims that according to ANSI, atmospheres with partial pressure of oxygen of 95 to 122 mm Hg, which corresponds to 12.5 percent to 16 percent of oxygen by volume at sea level, is not immediately dangerous to life.

“If an environment is made up of 21 percent oxygen and the rest is made up of 79 percent nitrogen, it should be safe for humans to enter by OSHA's theory because it is above the 19.5 percent oxygen concentration number,” Costello said. “But in this scenario if there are only 21 molecules of oxygen for breathing, then the employee entering this environment will die. This is why measuring oxygen percentage in the atmosphere is not the measure for safety.”

Costello: OSHA Making a Mistake

Costello maintained that FirePASS's technology complies with the standard because it maintains an environment with a partial pressure equivalent to one in an airplane cabin, “the same millions of people fly every day.” He also stated that OSHA's standard, as it stands, give employees and employers “a false sense of security” as he questioned whether employers will assume that 19.5 percent oxygen at sea level is equivalent to 19.5 percent oxygen at high altitudes.

OSHA stated that employees working in high altitudes have adjusted physiologically to the reduced partial pressures of oxygen.

Department of Labor statistics indicate that workplace fires and explosions kill 200 people and injure more than 5,00 workers each year. Bearing this number in mind, Costello claimed that “you would think with our capability to prevent fires in the workplace, OSHA would get behind our technology 100 percent.”

He said he has been trying to get in touch with several OSHA officials, including Foulke, for over two years, but his efforts have been fruitless.

“[OSHA] is actively blocking a new technology that is safe and can protect the U.S. workforce from the threat of fire and explosions,” Costello said. “Healthy workers should be afforded the ability to use our technology and work in a safe environment where no fires can ignite.”

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