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The future of PSM

For the first time in 20 years, OSHA is taking a serious look at its Process Safety Management Standard


Key points

  • Changes the agency is considering include expanding the standard's scope to include reactive chemicals and atmospheric storage tanks.
  • A new regulation likely would proceed faster than average, one expert anticipates.
  • Some stakeholders have suggested that before updating the standard, OSHA should first improve data collection and enforcement.

A decade ago, an explosion at a plastics manufacturing facility in Illinois left five workers dead. Other chemical-related facility explosions – and worker deaths – have followed. Among them: A refinery facility in Texas in 2005 (15 workers killed and 170 others injured); a refinery in Washington in 2010 (seven workers killed); and a fertilizer storage and distribution facility in West, TX, last year (15 people killed, most of them firefighters).

In August 2013, in response to the highly publicized incident in West, TX, President Barack Obama issued an executive order (EO 13650) charging OSHA with examining whether the agency’s Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals Standard (1910.119) should be updated.

The standard – originally promulgated in 1992 after several worldwide catastrophic chemical-release incidents occurred – aims to prevent or minimize employee exposure to hazards caused by uncontrolled chemical releases.

Prior to the executive order, OSHA had been exploring the possibility of updating its PSM standard. However, the order, issued Dec. 9, prompted the agency to publish a Request for Information seeking stakeholder input on updating the standard. Comments are due March 10.

“This is the most important development in PSM since the inception of the standard and has wide-ranging ramifications to the industry,” states a white paper from AcuTech, a process risk management consulting company based in Vienna, VA.

OSHA’s request

The RFI addresses 17 parts of the standard that OSHA may update. It includes the possibilities of increasing the number of covered facilities or processes, as well as the number of work activities that fall under the existing standard, according to Steve Arendt, vice president of North America process industries for Houston-based ABS Consulting.

Worth considering is whether the current PSM standard is doing an adequate job, said Scott Berger, executive director at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ Center for Chemical Process Safety. CCPS is a global organization focused on providing support to companies looking to prevent safety incidents, including through the use of guidelines and other materials.

“We published our PSM guidelines in 1989, and updated them in 2007 because there were some things we felt were learned,” Berger said. “After 20 years, it is worth at least looking at.”

The following are five of the 17 areas OSHA is looking to update:

1. Expanding PSM coverage and requirements for reactivity hazards. This area is perhaps the biggest change OSHA could consider, and could prove the most challenging. The Chemical Safety Board has been pushing OSHA for years to expand coverage to reactive chemicals.

“The reactive issue is a very tough one to crack. It’s tough to do it right,” Arendt said.

The difficulty stems from the large number of possible chemical combinations that could lead to a dangerous release. It would mean coverage of chemicals and materials that normally are stable but become unstable when mixed together or with another substance, such as air. The current PSM standard regulates chemicals based on their threshold quantity – a level determined by a highly hazardous chemical’s weight in pounds at a site.

Because of the sheer number of chemicals and possible combinations, Arendt believes the best approach may be to require employers to conduct a reactive chemical analysis to determine whether they would have to apply the PSM elements.

2. Clarifying the PSM exemption for atmospheric storage tanks. Under the current standard, facilities’ PSM systems are not required to include flammable materials stored in atmospheric tanks. OSHA initially attempted to oversee such tanks under the PSM standard through an interpretation, but an appeals court ruled the agency could not do so.

The agency may propose removing this exemption and including atmospheric storage tanks in the PSM standard. The problem with this, according to Arendt, depends on which tanks OSHA targets and where those tanks are stored. Tanks inside the PSM-covered process area are certainly more vulnerable, he said, but storage tanks outside the process area with only a small line connecting them to the covered process may pose less of a risk.

3. Clarifying the PSM standard by providing a definition for “Recognized and Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practices.” RAGAGEP, a term mentioned but not defined in the current PSM standard, relates to how facilities should design, construct, test and inspect their PSM-covered equipment and processes.

Within the industry, uncertainty exists about what RAGAGEPs are. OSHA could change that by explicitly defining the term. Specifically, OSHA is considering adopting the Center for Chemical Process Safety’s definition, which defines RAGAGEPs as:

“The basis for engineering, operation, or maintenance activities and are themselves based on established codes, standards, published technical reports or recommended practices or similar documents. RAGAGEPs detail generally approved ways to perform specific engineering, inspection or mechanical integrity activities, such as fabricating a vessel, inspecting a storage tank, or servicing a relief valve.”

4. Updating regulations addressing the storage, handling and management of ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate played a prominent role in the explosion in West, TX, leading several stakeholders to believe it will be included in the updated standard.

5. Revising paragraph (o) of the PSM standard to require third-party audits. The current standard requires facilities to have an audit conducted but does not specify who should do the audits or what the qualifications should be. The Chemical Safety Board attributed part of the 2005 explosion in Texas to flawed internal audits, and the offshore industry is required to have an audit conducted by a third party.

“I think to the extent that audits have been done in a tick-box fashion, having stronger audit provisions will be helpful,” Arendt said.

Current Process Safety Management Standard requirements

The Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals Standard has several elements. The basic requirements of the standard include:

  • Understand the chemical process, including knowing what hazards are present.
  • Analyze the process for what could go wrong and what controls are needed.
  • Ensure equipment works the way it is intended to, including pipe fitness checks and properly working release valves.
  • Evaluate changes to the process to determine if new hazards are introduced.
  • Write operating procedures defining how those procedures will be performed safely.
  • Train all employees on the process, and consult with them on the conduct and development of process hazard analysis.
  • Investigate incidents to identify the events and causes as a means to develop and implement corrective measures.
  • Develop emergency planning and train employees on it.
  • Evaluate a facility’s PSM system every three years to ensure it is effective and in compliance.

“It’s really quite logical,” Scott Berger, executive director at the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ Center for Chemical Process Safety, said of the PSM standard.

The safety case

One potential solution to PSM problems is establishing a safety case regulatory system. Used in the United Kingdom and pointed to by CSB, the system would require high-hazard facilities to demonstrate to a regulator that they can operate safely and conform to the most recent industry standards to achieve low risk levels.

Going with this solution would mean OSHA would not have to continually update its regulations to keep them current, CSB said. Instead, facility operators would be tasked with keeping up with industry’s best safety practices.

In essence, according to Arendt, OSHA would be tasked with approving a facility’s written plan, which would consist of a detailed description of the facility, a risk assessment and the facility’s designed PSM system.

Berger said the system is merely a change of language and style from what is being done under the current PSM standard – analyzing risk and reducing hazards. Furthermore, Arendt said, the safety case approach likely would lead to additional paperwork.

Although Arendt said the approach could have some benefits, and aspects should be considered during the rulemaking process, he warned against full implementation of the safety case.

“In the United States, people die not because the safety management system doesn’t look good enough on paper; people die because companies don’t live up to the promises on the paper,” he said, adding that the safety case approach is unlikely to eliminate all the root causes associated with chemical process disasters.

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