Occupational Health News Roundup

Chemical Safety Board Chair Rafael Moure-Eraso testified before the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee regarding its preliminary findings on the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people in April. Ramit Plushnick-Masti reports for the Associated Press:

"The safety of ammonium nitrate fertilizer storage falls under a patchwork of U.S. regulatory standards and guidance — a patchwork that has many large holes," according to the report presented to the panel by Rafael Moure-Eraso, the board's chairman.

The board, which has no regulatory authority, recommended in 2002 that the EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration add reactive chemicals such as ammonium nitrate to the list of substances they regulate. That never happened, and the risk management plan that the plant in West was required by federal law to fill out focused exclusively on the potential for a leak of anhydrous ammonia, another fertilizer chemical it stored and sold.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California who chairs the committee, said new legislation was not necessary to permit the EPA to begin regulating the safe handling of ammonium nitrate and other hazardous chemicals.

OSHA, according to other experts who testified, already requires ammonium nitrate to be stored separately from other combustibles in a room that has a partition that can withhold fire for up to an hour. But the agency had not inspected the West plant since 1985. The facility was not in compliance, and if it had been, the accident may have been avoided, testified Sam Mannan, a professor and expert on process safety from Texas A&M University.

Moure-Eraso's testimony is available at the CSB website.

In other news:

New York Times: A consortium of 70 clothing retailers and brands has agreed to a legally binding plan to inspect all their Bangladeshi supplier factories and to insure that funds are available to correct safety deficiencies uncovered during the inspections. Most of the consortium members are European companies; some US retailers have joined an alternative group that critics say will do less to improve factory safety in Bangladesh.

Chicago Tribune: After a four-year battle that included a global boycott, hotel workers' union UNITE HERE and the Hyatt hotel chain have reached a tentative agreement that would increase workers' pay and benefits.

Mother Jones: Employees of the Bay Area Rapid Transit agency (BART) went on strike last week, demanding their first wage increase in five years and improved safety measures. A temporary agreement allowing for another 30 days of negotiation brought workers back to the job after four days of picketing.

Charleston (WV) Gazette: A new regulatory agenda from the Department of Labor shows delays on regulations to protect mineworkers' health and safety, including stronger limits on coal dust in order to reduce black lung disease rates.

The Oregonian: Many Vietnam veterans with health problems they say are linked to Agent Orange exposure are still fighting to get their disability claims recognized.

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