“An empty feeling” following CSB’s report on West Fertilizer disaster, and eating my words

A host of failures led to the explosion of fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate (FGAN) at the West Fertilizer Company on April 17, 2013. This disaster led to the death of 15 people. That’s what I heard during the Chemical Safety Board’s (CSB) public meeting on January 28 at which their investigation report was released. I also heard sadness tinted with frustration from a victim of the disaster. She lost someone who was very close in the blast. She sat quietly behind me at the meeting. Her demeanor was private. I’ll call her Theresa.

Like me, Theresa was taking notes on the investigators’ presentations while also skimming the pages of the CSB’s 250-page report. As the meeting progressed, we helped each to find the relevant pages in the report to match them up with the investigators’ PowerPoint slides.

Despite the CSB’s thorough report, Theresa felt unsatisfied. She glanced around the room looking for familiar faces. She turned around repeatedly to do this. She wondered why so many of her neighbors from West were not present. Did they not expect to learn anything new? Did they already have the answers they needed?

We both paid close attention to the 18 recommendations made by the CSB. The recommendations are directed at 10 different entities. One, for example, calls on the El Dorado Chemical Company—a Texas manufacturer and supplier of FGAN—to  encourage  its customers to use industry standards to audit the locations where FGAN will be stored. Another recommendation calls on the State Firefighter’ and Fire Marshalls’ Association of Texas to develop training-certification criteria for fire departments that may be called on to respond to incidents at FGAN facilities.

These were not, however, the recommendations that resonated with Theresa. Despite the CSB investigators’ explanation of “inherently safer technology,” none of the recommendations linked directly to that concept. That’s the type that would have really satisfied Theresa. The closest alternative was a recommendation to OSHA for a modest update to an existing regulation. The CSB is offering OSHA two options to fulfill the recommendation:

  • Modify its Process Safety Management standard (1910.119) by adding FGAN to its list of highly hazardous chemicals.

OR

  • Revise its Explosives and Blasting Agents standard (1910.109) to ensure its title and/or scope make clear that it applies to facilities that store bulk quantities of FGAN. The standard should include requirements for FGAN to be stored in noncombustible containers, and in a building with fire detection and suppression systems.

Theresa thought this requirement made sense. She asked me: “When will that happen?”

That’s when I got had a sinking feeling. How do I tell her that OSHA doesn’t have a good track record of responding to the CSB’s recommendations?

By my count, the CSB has made 45 recommendations to OSHA since 1998. OSHA has responded to the satisfaction of the CSB for 26 of the 45. But what Theresa really wanted to know was OSHA’s track record on recommendations for regulatory changes.

I broke the news to Theresa: of the CSB recommendations to OSHA which would require a change to an existing regulation or issuing a new regulation, OSHA has only addressed one of 13 such recommendations.

Wanting to quell her empty feeling, Theresa said things might be different this time. She referred to President Obama’s particular interest in the West disaster. Afterall, he spoke at the memorial service and established a special committee of top EPA and OSHA officials to address chemical plant safety.

I said, “not likely. Even when an agency says it is doing something, it may not be.”

I explained something that I’d noticed in a status report about that special committee, which is the working group established by President Obama under his Executive Order 13650.  In its June 2015 status report, OSHA said it had

“initiated a Small Business Regulatory Flexibility Review Act (SBREFA) panel to get feedback from small businesses” on possible improvements to its PSM standard.

Although OSHA said it had initiated the SBREFA panel, I informed Theresa that the agency never did so.

My advice to Theresa was to stay in touch regularly with members of the CSB. Let them know that you think their recommendations are important. Tell them to press the recipients to adopt the CSB’s recommendations.

About OSHA, I said: “don’t hold your breath.”

A couple weeks have passed since that CSB public meeting and now I need to eat my words. OSHA’s website indicates it is planning to convene a SBREFA panel to discuss proposed changes to its PSM standard. The meetings will take place in March. Although only the designated small business representatives will be able to participate in the discussion, the public will be allowed to listen in. Perhaps Theresa will do so. I’m happy to eat my words, if she finds a little solace knowing that OSHA may be on its way to improving its PSM standard.