Improperly handling highly hazardous chemicals can result in chemical accidents: unexpected releases of explosive, flammable, reactive, or toxic gases and liquids.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) process safety management (PSM) standard sets out industry requirements for preventing or minimizing catastrophic releases of chemicals, and it applies across many industries.
Preventing chemical accidents involves coordinating management practices, procedures, and technology. That coordination begins with a process hazard analysis to review what can go wrong and evaluate possible safeguards. Other elements of a program include coordinating with contractors, planning for emergencies, and training employees.
The PSM standard has not been revised since it was published in 1992, but OSHA has been working for nearly 10 years on updates.
The PSM standard applies to any industry or production process involving highly hazardous chemicals, especially chemical production facilities and petroleum refineries. The standard can even apply to equipment like boilers that doesn’t involve highly hazardous chemicals if that equipment is interconnected with or located near equipment that does.
For example, Wynnewood Refining Co., LLC, contested an OSHA citation for PSM violations resulting from a boiler explosion that killed two workers. Wynnewood contended that the boiler did not involve highly hazardous chemicals.
However, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission upheld OSHA’s citations, agreeing with the agency that the boiler was directly connected to a steam header that routes steam for use in a number of processes throughout the facility. The boiler also was located 100 feet from the reactor column in the refinery’s fluid catalytic cracking unit (FCCU).
PSM standard requirements
The PSM standard requires employers handling highly hazardous chemicals to develop and implement a written PSM program. Program requirements include:
- Employee participation in the development of the PSM program;
- Performing a process safety hazard analysis;
- Compiling process safety information;
- Developing and implementing written operating procedures;
- Informing contractors of known potential explosion, fire, or toxic release hazards;
- Performing a pre-start-up safety review at new or modified facilities;
- Maintaining the integrity of chemical process equipment;
- Providing process safety and equipment maintenance training;
- Issuing “hot work” permits for hot work operations performed on or near process equipment;
- Establishing and implementing “management of change” procedures;
- Investigating incidents that resulted in, or could have resulted in, a catastrophic release of highly hazardous chemicals;
- Establishing an emergency action plan for the entire plant, as well as plans for handling small releases of highly hazardous chemicals; and
- Performing compliance audits at least every 3 years to assess the effectiveness of the PSM program and retaining copies of the two most recent compliance audit reports.
OSHA’s robust enforcement
Accidents at chemical plants or petroleum refineries can be catastrophic, and OSHA’s enforcement of the PSM standard is robust. PSM violations can often result in six-figure OSHA penalties.
For example, releases of oil and vapor into the air and fiery flares at a refinery in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, led to an OSHA investigation that concluded that the employer failed to meet the standard’s requirements. OSHA cited Limetree Bay Refining LLC with 20 violations of the PSM standard and proposed penalties totaling $259,407.
The EPA also cited the refinery for Clean Air Act violations. The company later shut down operations.
After a fatal fire and explosion at an Ohio paint and resins manufacturer, OSHA cited Yenkin-Majestic Paint and OPC Polymers Corporation of Columbus with 2 willful and 33 serious safety violations of the PSM, hazardous waste operations and emergency response (HAZWOPER), and personal protective equipment (PPE) standards.
Proposed penalties totaled $709,960, and the agency placed Yenkin-Majestic in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP).
Following a fire and subsequent explosions at a refinery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, OSHA cited Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) with 10 serious violations of the PSM standard and proposed penalties totaling $132,600.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigations Board (CSB) also investigated the June 21, 2019, fire, explosions, and toxic hydrofluoric (HF) acid release at the PES refinery in Philadelphia. Over 5,000 pounds (lb) of HF was released, and a 38,000-lb vessel fragment was launched off-site and landed on the other side of the Schuylkill River, with other fragments landing within the refinery’s grounds.
Concerns identified in the CSB’s investigation included:
- Mechanical integrity;
- Verifying the safety of equipment after changes to industry guidance, as required by OSHA and EPA regulations;
- Remotely operated emergency isolation valves;
- Safeguarding reliability in HF alkylation units; and
- Implementing alternatives to HF and sulfuric acid alkylation at the refinery.
The CSB later produced a video about the incident for the board’s YouTube channel that garnered 1 million views in the first week after posting.
Following a flash fire and an explosion on September 27, 2021, at Westlake Chemicals in Sulphur, Louisiana, that seriously injured 6 workers, OSHA issued a combined 11 serious violations to 4 employers and proposed penalties totaling $139,427. Westlake Chemical Lake Charles South was cited with 3 serious violations of the PSM and permit-controlled confined space entry standards, with proposed penalties totaling $30,453.
Contactors at the facility were cited for:
- Four serious violations, with proposed penalties of $58,008;
- Two serious violations, with proposed penalties of $26,104; and
- Two serious violations, with proposed penalties of $24,862.
One of OSHA’s largest penalties for PSM and other violations was the $1,671,738 proposed following the agency’s investigation of a worker’s death at a Ravenna, Ohio, aluminum parts manufacturer.
OSHA cited General Aluminum Mfg. Company with 38 safety and health violations, including 4 repeat, 18 willful, and 16 serious violations. The company was placed in OSHA’s SVEP.
The agency alleged the employer failed to:
- Perform a process hazard analysis for equipment where sulfur dioxide was used.
- Compile written process safety information, or develop and implement written operating procedures.
- Establish written procedures to maintain the ongoing integrity of the process equipment.
- Establish written “management of change” procedures for changes in equipment, procedures, process chemicals, and technology.
- Establish an emergency action plan at a facility handling highly hazardous chemicals.
- Train employees on operating procedures.
OSHA has an ongoing chemical facilities national emphasis program (NEP), launched in 2017, to ensure compliance with the agency’s PSM standard. Covered facilities include chemical plants, facilities producing explosives and pyrotechnics, and petroleum refineries.
Inspection procedures emphasize a check for PSM implementation over documentation. The agency contends that facilities may have an extensive written PSM program but lack adequate program implementation.
An inspection under the NEP begins with an opening conference with the facility safety and health director, the process safety manager, or another person capable of explaining the facility’s PSM program. The compliance safety and health officer (CSHO) will ask for an overview of processes or processing units at the facility.
The inspector will also ask the management representative to explain catastrophic release scenarios that might occur and what controls are in place to prevent them from happening. The CSHO will also ask whether there are any temporary workers working on or near PSM-covered processes.
A document review will include host and contract employers’ injury and illness (OSHA 300) logs, a list of all PSM-covered processes and units, a summary description of the facility’s PSM program, unit process flow diagrams, piping and instrumentation diagrams, unit electrical classification documents, process hazard analysis reports, and emergency action plans.
Beyond the opening conference and documentation review, the agency has a list of “dynamic questions” that CSHOs use in their inspection, but the list is not publicly available. CSHOs conduct inspections of both host and contract employers at a facility handling highly hazardous chemicals.
Nearly 1o years ago, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order (EO) directing OSHA and other federal agencies to improve chemical facility safety and security.
Since Obama’s EO, the CSB has called for stricter environmental and occupational safety regulations to help prevent reactive chemical accidents. The CSB has urged the EPA to revise its risk management plan (RMP) regulations and OSHA to revise its PSM standard. The CSB also recommended that OSHA broaden the scope of the PSM standard to cover reactive hazards resulting from process-specific conditions and combinations of chemicals and hazards from self-reactive chemicals.
It also recommended that OSHA require that employers consult multiple sources of information to adequately understand and control potentially reactive hazards when compiling process safety information.
It also suggested that process hazard analysis requirements needed to include consideration of several relevant factors in evaluating reactive hazards, such as:
- Rate and quantity of heat or gas generated by a process;
- Maximum operating temperature to avoid decomposition;
- Thermal stability of reactants, reaction mixtures, byproducts, wastestreams, and products;
- Effect of variables such as charging rates, catalyst addition, and possible contaminants; and
- An understanding of the consequences of runaway reactions or toxic gas evolution.
OSHA has already issued a request for information in the PSM rulemaking, conducted a Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) review, and held a stakeholder meeting last fall. The agency is also analyzing input from the stakeholder meeting, and it expects to complete that analysis this year.
Issues in the rulemaking include:
- Clarifying the standard’s exemption for atmospheric storage tanks;
- Provisions for oil and gas production facilities and well drilling and servicing;
- Expanding the PSM standard’s coverage of and requirements for reactive chemical hazards;
- Updating and expanding the standard’s list of highly hazardous chemicals;
- Requiring more management system elements in a PSM program;
- Adding a definition of recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices (RAGAGEPs) and requiring evaluation of updates to applicable RAGAGEPs;
- Expanding the scope of the standard to cover the mechanical integrity of any safety-critical equipment;
- Clarifying requirements for considering natural disasters and extreme temperatures in employers’ PSM programs;
- Requiring root cause analysis;
- Clarifying the standard with an explicit requirement that employers manage organizational changes;
- Revising a requirement to coordinate emergency planning with local emergency response agencies;
- A requirement for third-party compliance audits;
- Amending the explosives and blasting agents standard (29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) §1910.109) to extend PSM requirements to cover the dismantling and disposal of explosives and pyrotechnics;
- Updating the PSM and spray finishing operations standards based on current industry consensus standards;
- Updating regulations addressing the storage, handling, and management of ammonium nitrate;
- Clarifying the scope of the retail facilities exemption; and
- Changing enforcement policy for highly hazardous chemicals listed in the standard without specific concentrations.
Although you may not see a final rule updating the PSM standard for years, OSHA’s enforcement of the 1992 standard remains robust.