Reactive Chemical Hazards: What's the Enforcement Track Record?

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw has indicated the agency will not accept the Chemical Safety Board's (CSB) recommendation that OSHA amend its process safety management (PSM) standard to cover more reactive chemical hazards, but instead plans to rely on its general duty clause..

Although OSHA has not yet formally responded to CSB, in September, Henshaw said the agency would instead focus on providing guidance to industry, while relying on general duty clause (GDC) enforcement to deal with reactive hazards not covered by the PSM regulation.

What is OSHA's track record on using the GDC or PSM to tackle reactive chemical hazards? It is very difficult to answer that question, according to Mike Marshall, OSHA's PSM coordinator in the directorate of enforcements programs.

"We do not have a database on inspections for reactive hazards, our database was not set up for that," said Marshall. A keyword search of OSHA's database for GDC inspections with "chemical" and "reaction" yielded 55 incidents since 1986. "Not all 55 are necessarily reactive incidents," commented Marshall. "And there could well be more than 55." Another key word search yielded 194 hits. A year-by-year analysis of the incidents revealed no trends in the number of investigations conducted each year.

It is no easier to determine how many reactive incidents OSHA investigated using the PSM standard, Marshall said. He explained that "we would want to use the PSM standard when we could," because it is easier to enforce than the GDC, but that the advantage of the GDC is that it potentially applies to all situations.

OSHA's inability to determine its track record on enforcement of reactive chemical hazards seems to underscore the validity of a second CSB recommendation: that OSHA implement a program to define and record reactive incidents the agency investigates, in order to determine trends in the number of catastrophic reactive incidents. Such an effort would also indicate the effectiveness of OSHA's enforcement effort, and the relative value of the PSM and GDC mechanisms.

In his September speech, Henshaw made no mention of CSB's data recommendation. Marshall said it would be addressed when OSHA formally responds to CSB, probably before the end of the year.

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