Four years ago, in August 2012, a corroded pipe at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California ruptured, resulting in a catastrophic fire and a toxic vapor plume that engulfed, not only the refinery, but also spread over the northeastern San Francisco Bay area. Nineteen Chevron employees were caught up in the vapor cloud and one was trapped by a fireball. Remarkably, all survived. In the next several days, some 15,000 people in communities surrounding the refinery sought medical attention for symptoms related to smoke exposure. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, among the reported health effects were chest pain, shortness of breath, headaches, and sore throat; about 20 people were admitted to hospitals for treatment. Now, the state of California is finalizing regulations designed to help prevent such incidents.

The details sound complicated and technical, especially to those not familiar with the industrial safety procedures known as Process Safety Management (PSM), that aims to prevent major incidents in hazardous industries, including refineries and chemical manufacturing. But explains BlueGreen Alliance national director of occupational and environmental health, Michael Wilson, “The fact is that this is the first major serious rewrite of PSM since the original PSM  rules were drafted after Bhopal.” That was the catastrophic event in 1984 at a Union Carbide plant in India that released methyl isocyanate and killed thousands. If the new regulations do what occupational health and safety advocates say is needed, they have the potential “to completely change the [industrial safety] conversation nationally,” says Wilson.

The fundamentals of what California is  proposing could have helped prevent the Richmond Chevron refinery disaster. And, says Wilson, if fully implemented, they could also have helped prevent many other such incidents, including the 2010 explosion at Tesoro’s Anacortes refinery and the 2015 explosion at ExxonMobil’s refinery in Torrance, California.

Inherent safety first

At the heart of the California Department of Industrial Relations Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board’s new proposed regulations is a preventative approach that begins upstream in the industrial process. That means relying on what occupational safety experts call the hierarchy of controls. This calls first for eliminating hazards and substituting safer materials and processes, before depending on isolating workers from hazards or relying on personal protective equipment to keep workers safe.

The regulations would require refinery managers to implement what are called “first or second-order inherent safety measures.” This means they would be required to use safer chemicals or reduce the hazards of refinery processes wherever possible, by doing things like reducing the temperatures, pressures or volumes of chemicals used. The regulations would also require refinery workers – chosen by their peers – to participate in decisions about safety procedures. The current federal PSM standard has recommended guidelines for employee participation but the California proposal goes further by requiring employee involvement in many aspects of safety planning and training. This participation, Wilson explained, is key to addressing many situations that can lead to disastrous incidents. For example, worker involvement is critically important in assessing vital factors such as how long people have been on work shifts and in ensuring that all workers are familiar with new equipment and procedures. The proposed regulations also include requiring refineries to analyze the hazards in their processes, develop plans to prevent  health and safety problems, and train workers on these procedures.

Health and safety advocates see these fundamentals as key to addressing what’s lead to so many serious industrial incidents involving hazardous materials and manufacturing processes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 150 catastrophic accidents happen at U.S. industrial and chemical facilities each year. That’s almost one every two days.

Labor advocates and industry weigh in

California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board held a hearing on the proposed regulations on September 15th when a public comment period on the proposal also ended. Both occupational health and safety advocates – despite their support for the new regulations’ principles – and the refinery industry currently see problems in the details of what’s being proposed.

In their comments, the Western States Petroleum Association called the proposed regulations “overbroad” and say they “overstep” the state’s authority and “would neither improve safety performance nor provide material benefits.”  On the other hand, occupational health, safety and labor advocates – including the California Labor Federation, United Steelworkers, and BlueGreen Alliance – expressed concern that the proposed regulations lack specific deadlines and requirements that they consider essential if refineries are to make the needed substantive changes.

The California Department of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is now reviewing the public comments on the proposed regulations, explained DIR spokesperson Julia Bernstein. If the agency decides only minor changes are needed in response to public comments, the revised proposal will be released for a 15-day public comment period. If major revisions are made, there will be a 45-day public comment period. In either case, the final regulation must be adopted by July 15, 2017, one year after DIR first submitted the proposal to the Standards Board .