Chemically Challenged

THIS must be an election year. First The New York Times piled on John L. Henshaw's OSHA. Now, the punch comes from another direction. It's a sharp jab, not a long, looping right that's easy to dodge.

On Feb. 2, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board formally notified OSHA that it won't quietly accept the cooperative, anti-regulation approach OSHA favors. (I'll get angry letters from some readers over this statement, so watch our magazine's Letters page in upcoming issues. Here's my response: What other description fits an agency that scraps its own proposed regulations on tuberculosis, employer-paid PPE, and a musculoskeletal disorders column on the recordkeeping form, to name a few examples, and instead stays busy signing "alliance" agreements and lowering the bar so it can pad the ranks of its Voluntary Protection Program?)

But let's get back to the Chemical Safety Board's complaint. CSB, an independent federal safety panel, cares only about reactive chemicals. Unable to write regulations ordering stronger practices for handling them safely, it issues recommendations urging OSHA and other regulators to do so. The Feb. 2 letter told Henshaw that OSHA's response to CSB recommendations to broaden the Process Safety Management standard and to compile data on reactive chemical accidents is "unacceptable."

CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt said the board voted unanimously to designate OSHA's response as "Open -- Unacceptable Response" and will continue seeking action by OSHA. Merritt said the board was "disappointed" OSHA gave no indication when it might make a decision on revising the PSM standard. "While the Board commends OSHA on increased outreach efforts designed 'to heighten awareness of hazards associated with reactivity,' Board members continue to believe that the evidence compiled by the CSB's investigation strongly indicates that a revision of the standard is necessary," Merritt wrote.

CSB passed the recommendation in October 2002 after releasing a two-year hazard investigation, "Improving Reactive Chemical Management." Calling reactive chemical accidents a "significant chemical safety problem," the study focused on 167 serious accidents during a 20-year period. "The Board's goal is that all our recommendations be acceptably implemented. We would like to work with you in moving toward an acceptable outcome and we will reconsider the status of these recommendations upon timely follow-up responses," Merritt wrote.

Henshaw had a quick answer ready when The Times focused on his agency's weak enforcement in fatality cases. He quickly answered Merritt, as well: "Our comprehensive approach to address hazards is a sound one. . . . We welcome the opportunity to continue to work with the Board and would consider further information they provide us." He could answer even faster by simply telling the truth: We aren't in the business of writing new rules.

This article originally appeared in the March 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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