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June 3, 2002
Volume 80, Number 22
CENEAR 80 22 p. 6
ISSN 0009-2347


Safety board study finds serious gaps in accident prevention rules


Regulations intended to prevent reactive chemical accidents in workplaces have "serious gaps," the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board charged at a public hearing in Paterson, N.J., last week.

OSHA's Process Safety Management standard and EPA's Risk Management Program should prevent accidents, but they often do not, CSHIB investigators said. Of 167 incidents occurring since 1980 in which 108 people died, the investigators found that more than half involved chemicals not covered by OSHA or EPA standards.

DEVASTATION Mishandling of hydroxylamine and potassium hydroxide resulted in 1999 explosion at Concept Sciences that sent debris flying for 2 miles, killed five people, and left a rubble-filled crater.
About 100 people attended the hearing at Paterson City Hall. CSHIB, which itself is under fire for mismanagement and a lack of productivity (C&EN, May 6, page 39), chose the site because it is near the Napp Technologies plant in Lodi, N.J., that exploded in 1995, killing five people. It is also near the Morton International--now Rohm and Haas--plant in Paterson where workers sustained serious injuries in a 1998 explosion.

Both explosions were blamed on runaway reactions. CSHIB's report two years ago on the Morton incident promised a full-blown look at reactive processes.

CSHIB investigators said the OSHA process standard covers only 162 of the 325 reactive chemicals on the National Fire Protection Association list. Moreover, that list--designed to help firefighters respond to spills and fires--does not cover all reactive industrial chemicals that must be safely handled to manage process hazards.

And although EPA's program is designed to safeguard the public from toxic and flammable chemicals, it does not cover reactive chemicals, the investigators charged. That's an oversight that ought to be remedied, they suggested, citing the Concept Sciences explosion outside Allentown, Pa., in 1999 as an example. There, a reactive explosion that occurred during the manufacture of hydroxylamine killed four plant workers and someone working in an adjacent building for another company.

CSHIB member Gerald V. Poje said OSHA and EPA standards "control the hazards of specific listed chemicals. Except by happenstance, however, the combinations of chemicals that can lead to reactive incidents are largely exempt from these list-based process safety rules."

Industry and worker union representatives at the public hearing supported the CSHIB investigation along with a call for better documentation of reactive chemical incidents. Eric Frumin, director of occupational safety and health for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees, criticized "OSHA's failure to close the gap on reactive chemical standards."

He claimed that the chemical industry used its political influence with the Bush Administration to force the agency to drop a much-needed revision of process safety standards. Akzo Nobel's Donald J. Connolley, representing the American Chemistry Council, dismissed that notion.

CSHIB investigators said they were able to obtain information on only 167 incidents because no central database existed for reactive chemical incidents and because available information was often sketchy. Of the 167 incidents they were able to study, 70% took place at chemical manufacturing facilities and 30% took place at storage-handling and consumer sites.

About 90% of incidents involved documented reactions. Despite that documentation, workplace procedures were often poor in the investigated incidents, the officials said, so hazards frequently were not recognized.

Poje said CSHIB's final report on reactive chemicals will come out this summer, after a review of public comments that it will accept through June 30.


Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

Related Stories
[C&EN, May 6, 2002]

Chemical plant blast kills five near Allentown
[C&EN, March 1, 1999]

[C&EN, August 14, 2000]

[C&EN, Jan. 3, 2000]

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