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Union: Chemical Facility Rule Falls Short

A 200-page analysis by the United Steelworkers (USW) union concludes that an interim final rule issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in early April regarding chemical facility anti-terrorism standards fails to protect workers and nearby communities.

On April 2, DHS released an interim final rule that imposes comprehensive federal security regulations for high-risk chemical facilities. USW asserts that the rule is ineffective in protecting workers for these reasons:

  • Lack of employee involvement in keeping a plant safe.
  • No protections for whistleblowers.
  • No requirements that companies use inherently safer technologies or less hazardous chemicals.
  • Preemption of more stringent existing laws and proposed state laws.

“The Homeland Security rules for the nation's high-risk chemical plants fall far short of what is needed to truly make facilities safe from terrorist attacks,” USW President Leo Gerard said. “It's another example of the Bush administration's attempt to appear as if it is taking care of industrial safety problems. Security actions alone are insufficient to protect workers and communities.”

Employees Should Be Involved in Plant Safety

John Alexander, USW's health, safety and environment specialist, said it doesn't make sense for DHS to fail to mandate employee involvement in keeping a facility safe.

“Workers are in a unique position to identify and prevent potential facility vulnerabilities,” Alexander said. “They understand where an intruder might enter a plant, whether or not security guards are doing their jobs, where volatile materials are located, whether backup control systems are operating properly as well as other potential risks.”

Without protection for whistleblowers, Alexander added, the rules encourage companies to meet only the minimum requirements and not what is actually necessary to protect workers and the surrounding communities.

“Workers Have a Right to Know”

USW's review of the DHS rules notes that one of the easiest ways to make a facility less vulnerable is to insist on the use of Inherently Safer Technologies (IST) and less hazardous chemicals. Use of such technology, according to USW, should be done before the hiring of extra guards and installation of fences.

While DHS says it does not intend to preempt existing plant security law, the new regulations explain that any state law that requires the public disclosure of information deemed to be critical and vulnerable information would be preempted by the DHS rule.

“Workers have a right to know what chemicals they are handling,” Alexander said.

Information Misuse Possible During Background Checks

Another concern raised by USW is that DHS' requirement for background checks of existing employees could raise the possibility of misuse of the information, and time and money will be spent defending those who are unjustly treated because of information gathered through a background check. According to the union, this as an attempt by companies to control their workers and violate their right to privacy.

In addition, USW contends that DHS' new security requirements do not set a timetable for changes or require the industry to take specific measures.

Alexander said federal security regulation would provide far greater protection by including the following provisions:

  • Requiring the employment of sufficient and qualified personnel to meet the requirements
  • Strengthening the recordkeeping and reporting requirements for process malfunctions or any attempted terrorist attack.
  • Defining the need for emergency response, safe shutdown, evacuation and decontamination procedures in case of an attack or malfunction.
  • Issuing effective training requirements for workers in covered facilities.
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