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Volume 86 Issue 11 | p. 9 | News of The Week
Issue Date: March 17, 2008

OSHA Targets Chemical Plants

Agency will inspect industry's operations with far greater scrutiny
Department: Government & Policy

BEGINNING THIS YEAR, chemical companies will receive a battery of complex "process safety management" (PSM) inspections conducted by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, says Richard E. Fairfax, director of OSHA enforcement programs.

The inspections will focus on management and operation of chemical manufacturing processes, which are the primary cause of large chemical accidents. Like the processes, the inspections are complex, Fairfax notes, and will be similar to those of an OSHA inspection program for refineries, which began last June.

OSHA has been urged to conduct more frequent PSM inspections by the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) following a fatal 2005 refinery accident in Texas. CSB noted that over a decade, OSHA conducted only four PSM inspections at chemical plants and none at refineries (C&EN, March 26, 2007, page 32).

Fairfax tells C&EN that so far OSHA has found 212 violations at refineries after conducting 52 inspections. OSHA found about 89% of the violations to be "serious" and assessed $700,000 in penalties. An inspection can remain open for six months, and few of the refinery inspections are closed. Citations will grow, he says, noting, "We still have a long way to go."

The new chemical and refinery inspections are OSHA "national emphasis programs," Fairfax says. In all, OSHA has about eight emphasis programs in different industries. Each can last up to five years, he says. The refinery program will end in 2009; the chemical plant program's duration will depend on results once inspections begin.

OSHA has 101 refineries under its jurisdiction, and it will inspect 81 of them. The others are part of a voluntary OSHA oversight program. Also under OSHA jurisdiction are 28,000 chemical plants, Fairfax says, and the agency is just now determining how many plants it can inspect.

OSHA has about 1,000 inspectors, and 330 are being trained for the refinery program. These same inspectors and more will be trained for the chemical plant program, Fairfax says.

United Steelworkers health and safety specialist Kim Nibarger applauds the program but is concerned about a shortage of inspectors and adequacy of the training. The union represents workers in both chemical plants and refineries. Fairfax counters that OSHA is running inspectors through three training courses, and each inspection team is led by a PSM veteran inspector.

 
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