The Future of the OSHA PSM Standard

Proposed modifications could mean that many new sites will be covered and will need to formally adopt PSM as defined in the OSHA regulation.

Process safety excellence still eludes most process manufacturers. It can be defined as having employees who all are genuinely proficient and competent in their requisite technical disciplines and having the appropriate levels of knowledge embedded in key positions throughout an organization with a mechanism for longevity. Or, more simply: "having the right people, with the right skills, implementing appropriately designed process safety programs, motivated by the right organizational culture, in the right way."

Results are far reaching and include protecting the workforce, facility, and the environment; maintaining stakeholder confidence; and complying with all legislation and avoiding regulatory intervention.

The catastrophic explosion at a Texas fertilizer warehouse in April 2013 has increased national awareness of the issues regarding hazardous chemicals and the potential community effects of a major incident. This incident also has increased concern regarding thermally unstable materials. Reactive and unstable materials are not currently included in the listing of highly hazardous chemicals in the OSHA Process Safety Management regulation (PSM, 29 CFR 1910.119).

U.S. government regulators are focusing new efforts on the chemical process industries, and these efforts may result in new or modified legislation and oversight. In response to the catastrophic ammonium nitrate fertilizer warehouse explosion, the White House issued an executive order (EO #13650) that directs several agencies within the government, including OSHA, to improve chemical facility safety and security. The order established several chemical safety and security working groups that are charged with identifying "best practices to reduce safety and security risks in the production and storage of potentially harmful chemicals." OSHA has chaired a working group to respond to Section 6 of the EO regarding "Modernizing Policies, Regulations and Standards."

As a direct result of the Section 6 working group, OSHA issued a Request for Information on Dec. 9, 2013, to shareholders and all interested parties regarding possible changes to its PSM regulation. Comments and information must be returned to OSHA by March 10, 2014. The request represents OSHA's preliminary view of those aspects of its standard that need to be revised; it identifies 17 specific topics as potential targets for regulatory overhaul. Two of the topics (items 2 and 3 in the list below) are specific to upstream work in the oil and gas industry. One would remove the existing PSM exemption for well drilling and servicing; the other would have OSHA resume PSM enforcement at well production facilities.

Potential Topics for Regulatory Overhaul
1. Clarifying the PSM exemption for atmospheric storage tanks.

2. Subjecting oil- and gas-well drilling and servicing to PSM requirements.

3. Enforcing PSM requirements at oil- and gas-well production facilities.

4. Expanding PSM coverage and requirements for reactive hazards.

5. Updating the list of highly hazardous chemicals in Appendix A of the PSM standard.

6. Revising the PSM standard to require additional management-system elements.

7. Amending paragraph (d) of the PSM standard to require evaluation of updates to applicable recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices (RAGAGEP).

8. Clarifying the PSM standard by adding a definition for RAGAGEP.

9. Expanding the scope of paragraph (j) of the PSM standard to cover the mechanical integrity of any safety-critical element.

10. Clarifying paragraph (l) of the PSM standard with an explicit requirement that employers manage organizational changes.

11. Revising paragraph (n) of the PSM standard to require coordination of emergency planning with local emergency response authorities.

12. Revising paragraph (o) of the PSM standard to require third-party compliance audits.

13. Expanding the requirements of section 1910.109 to cover dismantling and disposal of explosives, blasting agents, and pyrotechnics.

14. Updating sections 1910.106 and 1910.107 based on the latest applicable consensus standards.

15. Updating the regulations addressing storage, handling, and management of ammonium nitrate.

16. Changing enforcement policy of PSM exemption for retail facilities.

17. Changing enforcement policy for highly hazardous chemicals listed in Appendix A of the PSM standard without specific concentrations.

As an example of the significance of these changes (if adopted), number 4 would add a tremendous number of chemicals and chemical reactions to PSM coverage. In August 2003, the state of New Jersey added reactive chemical hazards to its New Jersey Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act (TCPA) and attempted to address one of the principal issues: "What is a reactive chemical and what is a hazardous reaction?" As a result, New Jersey created multiple lists to help sites determine the answer to those questions and the threshold quantity that should be applied. The lists included some specific chemicals and specific mixture functional groups and reaction energy thresholds. These lists were assembled after much discussion with experts in the field of hazardous reactions and reactive chemicals, including the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

It is likely that the TCPA will become a model for OSHA to address reactive chemical hazards. If it does, many sites will have to audit their materials and chemistries (expected and unexpected) to determine PSM coverage. Even if number 4 is not adopted, it is likely that umber 5, the update of Appendix A, will include many reactive substances as well as a reduction of threshold quantity for some substances. Appendix A has remained unchanged since OSHA promulgated the PSM standard in 1992. Numerous listings of highly hazardous chemicals from diverse guiding bodies (such as the National Fire Protection Association and the U.S. Department of Transportation) have been updated in the years since OSHA enacted its standard, and these are likely be considered in this OSHA updating of Appendix A.

The significance of the proposed PSM changes could be to greatly expand coverage of processes in order to include many not currently covered by the PSM regulation. New chemicals will likely be added to Appendix A, and reactive chemicals (a definition will be needed) also may be covered. What exactly will be the definition of a reactive chemical is unclear at this time, although definitions used in New Jersey in the TCPA Act may guide OSHA.

It is likely that atmospheric storage of flammable liquids will be included more specifically and the exemption of these tanks eliminated. In applying RAGAGEP, sites may be required to apply the most recent codes and standards to covered processes, perhaps at the time of PHA auditing. A narrowing of the PSM exemption for retail facilities could bring many of these facilities under the PSM regulation at some level.

Process safety management practices should be applied to all facilities that store and process hazardous materials that have fire, explosion, reactivity, and toxic properties. If changes are made to the PSM regulation, many new sites will be covered and will need to formally adopt PSM as defined in the OSHA regulation. The addition of reactive chemicals to the PSM regulation will greatly expand the number of processes covered by the regulation. Keeping up with the most current codes, standards, and legislative changes is a daunting task that may require the support of specialists.

The results of the proposed legislation will be an increase in the level of process safety excellence throughout the chemical industries.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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