Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Will OSHA or EPA Regulate Reactive Chemical Hazards? 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

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Will OSHA or EPA Regulate Reactive Chemical Hazards? 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

Article excerpt

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. …

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