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Agency Toughens Scrutiny Of Plants

Government: Targeted inspections of chemical facilities aim to prevent serious accidents

by Jeff Johnson
December 5, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 49

Credit: CSB
OSHA seeks to avoid accidents like the one that killed five workers at a polyvinyl chloride plant in Illinois in 2004.
Formosa chemical facility in Illinois, explosion in 2004, used to illustrate a story on OSHA decision to increase inspections at chemical plants
Credit: CSB
OSHA seeks to avoid accidents like the one that killed five workers at a polyvinyl chloride plant in Illinois in 2004.

Chemical manufacturers will face more aggressive plant safety inspections under a program announced by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration last week. According to David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, the agency will enlarge a 2009 pilot program that required tougher inspections for some chemical facilities.

“Far too many workers are injured and killed in preventable incidents at chemical facilities around the country,” Michaels said in a statement. “This program will enable OSHA inspectors to cover chemical facilities nationwide to ensure that all required measures are taken to protect workers.”

Called the Chemical Facilities National Emphasis Program (NEP), the new effort establishes additional procedures for inspections to stress OSHA’s process safety management standard. The standard focuses on manufacturing process safety for “highly hazardous chemicals,” a category of particularly reactive and potentially dangerous chemicals.

The program will result in more detailed inspections at facilities randomly selected from a list of work sites likely to have these chemicals in large quantities.

Michaels said OSHA’s pilot program found safety-related problems like those discovered under an NEP already in place for refineries. As a result, he said, OSHA is expanding the chemical plant enforcement program.

“We are in favor of NEP continuing and expanding. We think there are significant issues in the chemical industry,” says Michael J. Wright, director of health and safety for the United Steelworkers. The Refinery NEP, he adds, “has changed behavior of a lot of oil companies. We’d like to see the same for chemical companies.”

“We have been in regular communication with OSHA on the status of the pilot,” says Christine M. Sanchez, a spokeswoman with the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, a chemical industry trade association. “We are confident our members will continue to perform well in inspections.”

The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board also supports the new program, says a CSB official, who notes that two recent CSB safety reports have recommended a chemical industry NEP.



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