Process Safety: Preventing Your Worst Nightmare

Fires. Explosions. Massive chemical releases. The worst nightmare of any company that works with highly hazardous substances is the kind of catastrophe in which employees are injured or killed, and the facility is badly damaged or destroyed.

Process safety management is a framework for managing the serious risks associated with processes that involve highly hazardous chemicals. The purpose of OSHA’s Process Safety Management Standard (29 CFR 1910.119) is to prevent catastrophic releases of toxic, reactive, flammable, or explosive chemicals.

The standard spells out a number of requirements that must be met by companies that handle highly hazardous chemicals.

Here’s a brief overview.

  • Prestartup safety review. When a regulated process is going to be performed in new or substantially modified facilities, its design specifications have to meet process safety requirements. In addition, employees who will work on these processes have to receive the required training, and you have to develop safe operating and maintenance procedures and emergency planning for the facility.
  • Mechanical integrity. Equipment that’s used to process, store, or handle highly hazardous chemicals has to be designed, constructed, installed, and maintained to minimize the risk of accidental releases. OSHA also requires you to develop and follow written procedures for inspecting and testing equipment.
  • Hot work permits are required for welding and other hot work on or near a covered process.

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  • Change management. Temporary changes are often the cause of catastrophes. OSHA recommends using special forms to document the changes and their potential safety and health impact. The standard requires setting and monitoring time limits for temporary changes under specific steps for returning equipment and procedures to their original conditions. Again, employees involved in the process have to be trained.
  • Incident investigation. If there’s a catastrophic accident or a near miss, you must investigate the causes within 48 hours. The result should be a written report that describes and documents the incident, determines why it happened, and recommends what to do to prevent it in the future.
  • Emergency preparedness. OSHA requires you to have an emergency action plan that details procedures for small and large releases—who’s in charge of what, when, and where to evacuate, etc.
  • Compliance audits. You are required to audit your procedures and practices at least every 3 years. 

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