Will OSHA or EPA Regulate Reactive Chemical Hazards?

Sept. 17, 2003
Industry hopes a new outreach and education effort will address the problem, but stakeholders say some form of regulation of reactive chemicals may be inevitable.

The large turnout for the recent government-sponsored roundtable on the management of reactive chemical hazards surprised many who attended. More than 80 experts from industry, labor, environmental groups, academia and government showed up for the June 10 event, jointly sponsored by EPA, OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety Hazard and Investigation Board (CSB).

A CSB investigation completed in 2002 revealed that over the past 20 years, there have been 167 serious reactive chemical incidents, killing 108 people and causing untold property damage.

In September 2002, CSB sent EPA, OSHA, industry and labor groups a list of recommendations to address reactive chemical hazards. EPA and OSHA agreed to the roundtable after missing the 120-day deadline to respond to the CSB recommendations, many of them unobjectionable requests for greater information collection and dissemination.

But uppermost in the minds of most roundtable participants was CSB's controversial suggestion that EPA and OSHA amend their existing regulations to control reactive chemical hazards.

Roundtable Results

Predictably, representatives from environmental and labor organizations favored new regulations to address reactive chemical hazards. "The problem with the volunteer approach is it only works for the volunteers," commented Ross Vincent, senior policy advisor for the Sierra Club.

Industry associations such as the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA) preferred to talk about CSB's other recommendations.

SOCMA declined to make a formal presentation at the roundtable, but released a statement asserting the organization "strongly believes it is premature to recommend any regulatory changes."

Despite the dispute about CSB's regulatory recommendations, statements made at the roundtable and conversations with attendees several weeks later point to an emerging consensus around a number of issues.

  • Reactive chemical incidents are a major national problem that must somehow be addressed;
  • Industry and government must improve their collection of reactive chemical incident and near-miss data, to better understand root causes and prevention strategies;
  • There are major hurdles facing a regulatory approach, such as determining which facilities to cover and what chemicals or chemical processes to include;
  • Because many reactive incidents result from the interaction of two or more agents that by themselves are ordinarily not reactive, to be effective any regulation of reactive chemical hazards must go beyond simply listing individual chemicals;
  • Better education and outreach to plant operators concerning reactive chemical hazards is an essential prevention strategy that can and should be addressed at once.

In order to respond to this last concern, the Center for Chemical Process Safety recently completed a short book designed, in part, to be a screening tool to help smaller plants and companies identify whether they have a potential reactive chemical hazard (see sidebar). Initially, the book was priced at approximately $100, but as the roundtable opened, OSHA, EPA, SOCMA and ACC announced they had reached an agreement with CCPS to make the book available to the public free of charge.

To Regulate, or Not to Regulate....

Some labor representatives and environmentalists at the roundtable welcomed the book deal, but others charged it was a subterfuge to forestall regulation, the result of an anti-regulatory alliance between government and industry.

"Publishing a book is a pathetic under-response," commented Paul Orum, of Working Group on Community Right to Know. "It could be that EPA and OSHA plan to do nothing more than help spread the book around, but that won't address the need."

CSB says more than half of the 167 reactive incidents involved chemicals not covered by existing OSHA and EPA process safety regulations. For this reason, the safety board recommended addressing reactive chemical hazards through changes to OSHA's Process Safety Management (PSM) standard, 29 CFR 1910.119, and EPA's Chemical Accident Prevention Programs, 40 CFR 68 (RMP).

But to date, OSHA has not indicated much interest in following CSB's recommendations. In addition to missing the deadline to respond to the safety board, OSHA in December 2001 withdrew from its regulatory agenda a proposal to revise the PSM rule.

"OSHA's 'body language' indicates a general lack of interest in regulating," commented Frank White, vice president of Organization Resources Counselors, a consulting firm with offices in Washington, D.C.

Even proponents of regulation recognize that reactive chemical hazards pose severe challenges for rulemakers. The diversity of views expressed at the roundtable about how, or whether, to regulate may not have increased the government's appetite for new rulemaking.

Commented ORC's White, "There's no simple formula for determining what is a hazardous reactive chemical. If the engineers can't agree, it's certainly difficult for the regulators to come up with an appropriate regulation."

CSB member John Bresland points out that the very success of the roundtable's robust attendance makes it more difficult for the government to come up with a proposed rulemaking in the near future.

"It's hard when you have 85 people around the table to arrive at detailed consensus and expect OSHA or EPA to come up with a specific solution," says Bresland.

At the roundtable there was some enthusiasm, especially by proponents of regulation, for a follow-up meeting that would be attended by fewer people, so that more detailed recommendations could be completed. As of late July, no follow-up meetings had been scheduled, however.

An Emerging Consensus?

Bresland believes the June roundtable was the beginning, not the end, of a process that may eventually lead to some form of regulation.

Although representatives from industry are generally lukewarm to regulation, many share a recognition that some form of regulation may be necessary, or even inevitable.

"I'm not opposed to a rule and I think eventually we'll see some regulatory action," says Don Connolley, manager of safety and health in the Americas for Akzo Nobel Chemicals, Inc., a multinational chemical company based in the Netherlands. "I think it's terribly complicated to know what chemicals to regulate. If you regulate everything, it's too burdensome, but if you don't, you'll miss things. That's the rub, and the dance in between."

Dennis Hendershot is senior technical fellow in the process hazard assessment department of corporate engineering at Rohm and Haas, a specialty chemical company headquartered in Philadelphia. "I would guess there are tens of thousands of chemicals and 150,000 different processes, so no regulation could ever cover them all," says Hendershot. "That's why the best approach is to have better educated chemists and engineers." But Hendershot believes there has now been so much pressure for so long that some kind of regulation is likely.

The difficulty of defining the universe of chemicals and covered facilities is precisely what is preoccupying government regulators, according to roundtable attendee Craig Matthiessen, associate director of the Office of Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response at EPA.

"It's a challenging problem," commented Matthiessen. He points out that dairies, bakeries and swimming pools all handle chemicals with potential reactive hazards. "There are more than 500,000 sites that handle chemicals that's our potential universe. So our question is how do you pare this down to those who really should look at it?"

While labor has traditionally favored a more prescriptive approach to rulemaking, many industry representatives say they were encouraged to see that at the roundtable union representatives had backed away from a list methodology.

"I'd like to see a performance-based regulation, with a certain amount of prescriptive requirements," says Michael Sprinker, director of health and safety at the International Chemical Workers Union. "It may make some sense to list some things, but a list-only approach is not the way to go."

Sprinker agreed with industry representatives that far more education about reactive hazards needs to be done, although he differed with those who said education alone is sufficient for now.

"I'm not sure what it will look like, but a new regulation must be performance-based to be realistic," Hendershot contends. For him, as for many, that means a rule without lists of chemicals.

"We don't all agree on the need for regulation," Hendershot says, "but at least we are coming closer on what a regulation shouldn't look like."

Sidebar: Managing Chemical Reactivity Hazards: A Book For Everyone

"It's designed for any industrial facility that wants to determine whether or not they are likely to have reactivity hazards," says Bob Johnson, co-author of a new book published by the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS). Essential Practices for Managing Chemical Reactivity Hazards quickly won wide praise from stakeholders attending the June reactive chemical roundtable in Washington, D.C.

The Chemical Safety Board's investigation of reactive chemical incidents revealed that in the vast majority of cases, the information needed to assess the hazards properly was known prior to the event.

Twelve questions are at the heart of the 200-page screening tool, according to Don Connolley, manager of safety and health at Akzo Nobel and a member of the committee charged with producing the book. "It is intended to help people realize what they don't know and to seek help so they avoid an incident."

Who should use the book? "I think it would be good practice for every industrial facility to go through this kind of checklist," asserts Dennis Hendershot, senior technical fellow at Rohm and Haas. "A lot of people handle chemicals who don't think of themselves as [being in] a chemical company."

The CSB investigation found that a significant number of reactive incidents occurred at storage facilities. Even water can combine with some chemicals to produce a reactive incident.

Most big chemical companies have many small facilities that may lack on-site experts in reactive chemistry. That's why Connolley and Hendershot say they expect all their facilities will use the CCPS screening tool, or something like it, so local plant managers will realize when they need assistance.

It should soon be possible for everyone to obtain the book. OSHA, EPA and industry groups announced at the roundtable they would donate enough money to make the book available to whomever wants it.

By late July, the agreement had still not been finalized, but an OSHA spokesperson explained how it would work. "The resources we commit will provide for a three-year subscription, during which reactive chemical users and producers may access the OSHA Web site where a hot link to the CCPS book distributor will be provided." Users may download the CCPS publication for free during the three-year period.

If everyone should use the CCPS screening tool, and the government is making sure everyone can use it, is the day coming when everyone must use the resource? In other words, while industry may be hoping the outreach effort will forestall a regulation, could the strategy backfire and turn the voluntary guideline into a regulation?

OSHA's process safety management standard (29 CFR 1910.119) already requires facilities to follow "recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices," known affectionately by cognoscente as "RAGAGEP."

Tim Overton, director of Dow Chemical Co.'s process safety technology center in Freeport, Texas, predicts that in the future OSHA and EPA compliance officers could apply the CCPS book to facilities in this way.

A number of industry sources express varying degrees of support, or acceptance, for turning the screening tool into a rule.

"I think," says Connolley, "if there were a regulation along these lines, it would reduce the number of reactive incidents."

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