Sustained Outrage

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Last week, U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended that the federal Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration updated its ancient standard for the safe handling of dangerous compressed gases.

In releasing its report on the fatal January 2010 phosgene leak at the DuPont Co. chemical plant in Belle, W.Va., the CSB said:

The report recommends the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) update its compressed gas safety standard to include modern safeguards for toxic gases such as phosgene. These improved safeguards include: Secondary enclosures for units using phosgene, mechanical ventilation systems, emergency phosgene scrubbers, and automated audible alarms.

Keeping in mind that DuPont rejected the notion of using some of these sorts of improved safety practices at its DuPont plant, Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said that adoption of the recommendation to OSHA:

… Would greatly increase the safe handling of toxic gases nationally, and will protect workers from the deadly exposures.

Sounds good, right? Surely the “new sheriff” in charge of the Obama administration’s workplace safety agency would jump on this and quickly move to take every possible step to protect workers. Well, not so much, it turns out …

No action on compressed gas safety is among the latest regulatory agenda announced this week by OSHA, and judging from what little I could get out of agency officials and publicists, action doesn’t appear to be coming any time soon.

During a webchat yesterday, I asked OSHA officials about this issue:

Last week, the Chemical Safety Board recommended that OSHA updated its standard on compressed gases. Does the agency plan to do that?

Someone from OSHA (it’s not clear who it was — the agency doesn’t say exactly what staffer is answering what questions on these webchats) answered:

Ken thank you for your question. We just received the CSB comments and recommendations last week and we are currently evaluating them.

OK … but wait a second. OSHA was actually briefed by the Chemical Safety Board back in late March, and told to expect just this recommendation on compressed gas safety. So I asked Diana Petterson, a labor department publicist, about this and she responded:

CSB briefed OSHA about their draft recommendations which often change before the final recommendations are made.

But that’s not what happened in this instance, I said … given that the recommendation was pretty much what OSHA was told to expect, why couldn’t agency officials provide a better answer? Petterson told me:

The CSB briefed OSHA several months ago about their draft recommendations. As CSB draft recommendations often change between the time they are discussed with OSHA and when the final report is issued, OSHA does not conduct a full evaluation of draft recommendations prior to the issuance of the final report.

She added:

At this time, OSHA’s resources have been fully committed to the current regulatory agenda. However, as resources become available, OSHA will be evaluating additional subjects to be added to the regulatory agenda. After fully evaluating the CSB’s recommendations, we will consider this recommendation for inclusion in the regulatory agenda along with other priority hazards that would benefit from regulatory activity, taking into account available resources, severity of the hazard, the number of workers affected and the availability of non-regulatory alternatives that would provide equivalent protection.

Now, here’s the thing … if you read the portion of the Chemical Safety Board’s report that outlines this recommendation, it’s very interesting:

The OSHA standard for Compressed Gases (29 C.F.R. 1910.101) applies to employers that handle, store, and use compressed gas in cylinders, portable tanks, or tank cars. The standard includes requirements for cylinder inspections, safety relief devices and storage and handling of compressed gas cylinders and requires employers to handle and store cylinders in accordance with [Compressed Gas Association] pamphlet P-1 1965, “Safe Handling of Compressed Gases in Containers.”

In the 41 years since OSHA adopted the reference standard as part of the Compressed Gas Regulations, CGA P-1 has been revised 10 times. The current 2008 version of the P-1 Standard is more comprehensive than the OSHA-adopted 1965 version. The 1965 version does not list chemicals by hazard class and contains only specific safety information for flammable and poisonous gases. The current version lists 82 chemicals that fall into the primary toxics category, whereas the 1965 version lists only 13 poisonous gases defined by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC). The 1965 standard contains the same general information as the current version, but lacks the detailed guidance for facility siting, emergency response, and safety information specific to various types of chemicals stored in compressed gas cylinders. The 1965 version includes obsolete and outdated references to applicable OSHA regulations, as it was published prior to the establishment of OSHA.

And there’s this, related directly to the phosgene leak that killed longtime DuPont worker Danny Fish:

With respect to the issues identified in the phosgene release investigation, had OSHA adopted the current version of the CGA P-1 Standard, DuPont would have been accountable for more phosgene storage engineering controls by the incorporation of the [National Fire Protection Association]  55 and other consensus standards referenced in the standard.

I followed-up again with Diana Petterson, asking this question:

CSB said that OSHA hasn’t updated this standard for 40 years … How can that possibly be true, given that the industry guidelines OSHA based its original standard on have been updated many times over that period? Isn’t this an indication that OSHA dropped the ball on this one, and hasn’t kept this standard up to date to protect workers in these industries?

I haven’t heard back from her …