U.S. Chemical Safety Board Votes 5-0 to Recommend New OSHA, EPA, and Industry Standards to Control Chemical Reaction Hazards

September 20, 2002
Sept. 20, 2002 - Washington, DC) Meeting before a public audience in Houston on September 17th, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) unanimously approved a total of 18 new recommendations to reduce the number of serious industrial accidents caused by uncontrolled chemical reactions and called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue new mandatory safety standards. CSB investigators told the Board members and the public that inadequate controls of chemical reaction hazards are responsible for continuing deaths, injuries, and environmental and property damage around the country. Three workers who were severely burned on March 27, 2000, in a reactive accident at Phillips Chemical Co. in Pasadena, Texas, spoke at the public meeting prior to the Board vote. For the first time the Board called on OSHA and EPA to extend their process safety regulations - known as the Process Safety Management standard and the Risk Management Program rule - to better control hazards associated with chemical reactivity. Under the terms of the Clean Air Act, OSHA and EPA must respond within no more than 180 days to the Board's recommendations.

"This report and its recommendations are a landmark for the Board," said Carolyn W. Merritt, CSB chairman, after the final vote was announced. "In time, I hope the recommendations will be seen as a landmark for the progress of chemical safety as well. Since the process safety regulations were first promulgated a decade ago, there has been a notable hole in the coverage of reactive hazards. The Board's recommendations today mark a first step in closing that hole and implementing new standards that ultimately will save lives."

The approval culminates a two-year special CSB investigation into hazards at U.S. sites that manufacture, store, or use potentially reactive chemicals. The study examined 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. More than half of the accidents involved chemicals that are exempt from OSHA and EPA process safety rules.

The Board requested that OSHA broaden the application of the PSM standard to cover both individual chemicals and combinations of chemicals that can undergo hazardous reactions under specific process conditions. The standard currently applies to only 137 listed chemicals, plus a class of flammable substances (there are estimated to be thousands of chemicals in common industrial use). Just 38 "highly reactive" chemicals are currently covered by the PSM standard. But the CSB study documented numerous examples where chemicals considered to be less reactive nonetheless caused runaway reactions, explosions, fires, or toxic gas releases, often with fatal consequences.

The Board made a separate but similar recommendation to the EPA, which currently does not specifically regulate reactive hazards under its RMP rule. The Board investigation pointed to numerous examples where reactive accidents had a significant public or environmental impact. For example, the 1999 Concept Sciences explosion outside of Allentown, PA, killed a member of the public and damaged nearby businesses. The chemical involved, hydroxylamine, is not covered under the EPA rule. Likewise, large public evacuations were necessary in May 1990 after a significant toxic gas release at Dow Chemical's Freeport (TX) facility - caused by a reaction between two incompatible chemicals that remain unregulated under the RMP rule.

The Board further called on OSHA to modify the PSM standard by requiring companies to evaluate the potential for hazardous reactions in each covered process. Companies would also be required to consult a wider array of scientific and technical literature on reactivity in compiling process safety information - information that is critical in designing safe processes and in protecting employees from workplace hazards. The Board cited deficiencies in process safety information as a root cause of the 1998 Morton explosion in Paterson, NJ, a reactive accident which injured nine workers and gave rise to the Board's reactive hazard investigation.

EPA and OSHA were also requested to collect additional reporting information on reactive accidents within their respective jurisdictions. Board investigators said that progress on preventing reactive accidents was hampered by a general lack of reliable data - including information on root causes and lessons learned. They also noted that the tally of 167 reactive incidents and 108 fatalities was almost certainly an underestimate due to data deficiencies.

Citing inadequacies in existing industry guidance on reactives, the Board called on the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the National Association of Chemical Distributors (NACD), the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA), and the Center for Chemical Process Safety (CCPS) to develop new voluntary codes and standards for controlling reactive hazards. Two of those groups - ACC and SOCMA - were also called on to cooperate with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in developing a new national database of reactivity test information. This public database of industrial test data would complement existing knowledge on reactive hazards available from the published literature.

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 www.chemsafety.gov.

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

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