Two-Year Staff Investigation Points to Gaps in OSHA and Industry Standards for Reactive Chemicals

September 17, 2002
September 17, 2002, Houston, TX -- The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) convenes in Houston today to vote on recommendations to OSHA, EPA, and trade groups to improve the safety of industrial processes that can experience hazardous chemical reactions. Inadequate controls of such "reactive hazards" are responsible for continuing deaths, injuries, and environmental and property damage around the country, according to the Board.

The new findings and recommendations stem from a two-year special CSB investigation into hazards at U.S. sites that manufacture, store, or use potentially reactive chemicals. The study examines 167 serious chemical accidents in the U.S. over the last 20 years that have involved uncontrolled chemical reactions. These accidents caused 108 deaths as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage. CSB investigators have concluded that reactive chemical accidents pose a "significant problem" and that the pertinent federal process safety regulations contain "significant gaps" in their applicability and in their specific provisions.

Reactive chemicals are those that can undergo potentially hazardous chemical reactions if not managed properly. These uncontrolled reactions can cause fires, explosions, and toxic gas releases. An example of a reactive hazard is a "runaway" reaction, where one or more chemicals suddenly react or decompose, accompanied by steep and accelerating temperature increases. In the confines of a chemical reactor or storage tank, such severe heating can result in a dangerous pressure increase, a vessel rupture, or an explosion. Just such a runaway reaction and vessel rupture occurred at a Morton International facility in New Jersey in 1998, triggering the Board’s special investigation.

The CSB study found that more than half of the 167 surveyed incidents involved chemicals that are not covered by either the OSHA Process Safety Management (PSM) or EPA Risk Management Program (RMP) rules. These rules require companies to apply good safety management practices to certain hazardous chemical processes.

"The lack of comprehensive regulatory coverage for reactive hazards has been a deficiency since the process safety rules were first issued in the 1990s," said Carolyn W. Merritt, CSB Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. "The reactive chemical study is thus one of the most important investigations the CSB has done. We will be voting on recommendations to OSHA, EPA, and industry that – if thoroughly implemented -- will have a significant impact on chemical process safety in this country."

The CSB investigation also found that despite the existence of much information on chemical reactivity in the scientific literature and elsewhere, some companies are not making sufficient use of the information. According to the lead investigator John Murphy, "In at least 90% of the accidents we analyzed, information on the hazards was obtainable from publicly available literature. However, federal workplace regulations contain few specifics on the need to review reactive hazard information."

Preliminary findings from the reactive hazards investigation were released at a CSB public meeting in Paterson, NJ, on May 30, near the site of the Morton accident. Numerous groups testified about their views on the reactives problem, and the Board has continued to collect public comments on suggested actions. The final report and recommendations under Board consideration today reflect this ongoing public process.

In addition to expanding the applicability of the process safety rules, the Board will vote on recommending that OSHA require companies to conduct improved hazard analyses and collect more complete safety information for regulated processes. The Board will also weigh asking for improvements to industry codes and guidance such as the American Chemistry Council’s Responsible Care program and the National Association of Chemical Distributors’ Responsible Distribution Process. All the measures would seek better control of chemical reactions that could lead to accidents.

As Chairman Merritt commented, "The problem of reactive hazards is complex and diverse, and we will need to pursue multiple approaches to improve performance. Prudent companies already realize the benefits of broad and far-reaching safety programs."

The Board convened in Houston because it is a major petrochemical industry center, and the area has seen several tragic accidents that were caused by uncontrolled reactive hazards. The CSB identified 28 serious reactive chemical accidents in Texas or Louisiana since 1980. For example, on July 5, 1990, 17 workers were killed when a 900,000-gallon chemical waste tank exploded at the Arco Channelview complex east of Houston. Explosions on June 23, 1999, and March 27, 2000, at the Phillips Chemical plant in Pasadena, TX, caused 3 fatalities and more than 70 injuries. Three of the five costliest reactive accidents occurred in Texas or Louisiana, with combined property damages in excess of $210 million.

Several workers who suffered serious injuries in Houston-area reactive chemical accidents are expected to attend the public meeting at the Hilton Houston Hobby Airport, along with representatives from the chemical industry, trade associations, professional groups, and labor organizations. The event will be webcast live and without charge on the CSB website, The broadcast begins at 9 a.m. Central Daylight Time (10 a.m. Eastern). The Windows Media Player, available from, is needed to view the webcast. The full report with recommendations is expected to be posted on the web site shortly after the meeting.

The CSB is an independent federal agency established in 1998 with the mission to protect workers, the public, and the environment by investigating and preventing chemical accidents. The CSB determines the root causes of these accidents and makes safety recommendations to government agencies, companies, and other organizations. The CSB does not issue fines or citations or apportion responsibility for accidents. Additional information is available from

For further information contact Sandy Gilmour Communications at (202) 261-7614 or (202) 251-5496 (cell).

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