Fairfax: OSHA Plans PSM Inspections for Chemical Plants

April 9, 2008
In an exclusive, face-to-face interview with OccupationalHazards.com, Richard Fairfax, director of OSHA enforcement programs, announced the agency intends conduct a slew of complex process safety management inspections at chemical plants, but was uncertain when inspections could begin.

Fairfax said he originally planned to launch the National Emphasis Program (NEP) for the chemical industry in late summer or early fall of 2008, but now is unable to make the deadline because his resources are tied up investigating the Imperial Sugar refinery blast in Georgia. That explosion killed 13 workers and critically injured 11 others.

“This doesn't mean that I have stopped working on it,” Fairfax explained. “We will continue with it and when we are ready, we will launch it.

Approximately 28,000 chemical plants operate throughout the country, and Fairfax said OSHA plans to randomly select facilities for inspection. These inspections will be similar to the OSHA inspection program for refineries, which began in June 2007.

While the NEP details have not yet been finalized, Fairfax said compliance officers will focus on the management and operation of chemical manufacturing processes. These are the primary causes of large chemical accidents in the United States, he said.

NEPs Very Helpful, Fairfax Says

Fairfax also responded to criticism from union and labor organization leaders who claim NEPs are not the sole solution in addressing combustible dust, diacetyl and other hazards. These dissenters maintain that NEPs do not fully address the dangers to workers, and that standards would be more effective.

Fairfax, however, asserted that NEPs do work. H noted that while developing a standard could take years, he almost immediately can send his team of compliance officers to investigate problems under an NEP. “If there is a problem, I can get there a lot quicker than with a standard,” he said.

Developing NEPs, meanwhile, is less time-consuming than creating standards. “I have developed and launched an NEP in a month,” he said.

Finally, Fairfax explained that the information and data gathered during NEP inspections also can help determine whether it is necessary to develop or issue a standard.

Refinery Inspections Yield an Average of 12 Violations

Fairfax pointed out that under the OSHA refinery inspection program, the agency so far has inspected 53 of the 81 refineries it plans to investigate, and has issued 241 refinery violations. Eight-nine percent of those citations were serious and 93 percent were serious, willful or repeat violations. The average number of violations per refinery inspection was just over 12. By contrast, the average number of violations across the country is three.

Fairfax and his team found a variety of process safety management issues in virtually all of the inspections, as well as significant deficiencies in process safety hazard analysis and process safety management recordkeeping.

“We are finding enough violations and enough problems that in my opinion, management and compliance with process safety management has slipped quite a bit,” he said.

According to Fairfax, the problem is not that refineries lack safety and health awareness. Instead, safety priorities often go to the backburner, as was the case with BP in Texas City, where a fatal blast killed 15 workers and injured 180 others in March 2005.

“Based on what we found at BP, I think they got into more of a production mode and the requirements of process safety management went to the back seat,” he said. “If you asked any safety and health professional at any of the refineries, I bet they would be willing to say that they are glad we are doing this [refinery emphasis program].

Fairfax Addresses Recordkeeping Criticism

Fairfax's enforcement team also faced criticism for not adequately verifying injury and illness rates submitted by employers. Bob Whitmore, a Department of Labor expert for OSHA recordkeeping litigation since the mid-1980s, claimed the agency has turned a blind eye to underreporting from companies in high hazard industries. These companies, he said, submitted OSHA 300 logs with very low recordable injury and illness rates.

Fairfax asserted that the team does record checks in each of the roughly 39,000 inspections they complete each year. He explained that “part of the job of a compliance officer is to evaluate records, and they are required to look at 3 years worth of recordkeeping.”

Fairfax added that while he does notice recordkeeping violations, he isn't about to issue citations for small mistakes.

“If somebody is making good faith effort and checks off the wrong box, I am not going to issue a citation for that,” he said. “In those cases, I have instructed our compliance officers to tell them what they did wrong and show them how to fix it.”

However, he added, “If we go out there and everything is in the wrong box or if it's obvious they haven't paid attention to it, then we issue citations. I am trying to get our people, in addition to providing assistance, to deal with the big stuff and not sweat the little things.”

Fairfax advises employers in any industry, should they have questions about the process safety management standard, to turn to the NEP for refineries and observe the list of elements OSHA addresses in every inspection. Fairfax says this list, which includes 20-25 items, represents “the key elements of process safety management.”

“It doesn't matter if you are chemical plant, refinery – the elements listed there, if you are not doing those and doing them properly, those are the ones that are going to cause problems,” he said. “We are more interested in companies finding a problem and fixing it as opposed to waiting for us to come in and issue citations.”

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