US chemicals sector needs new safety indicators

01 October 2007 20:36  [Source: ICIS news]

Better indicators needed to prevent accidents - CSBBALTIMORE, Maryland (ICIS news)--The US process industry is in urgent need of a better set of safety indicators that could help alert chemical manufacturers to potentially catastrophic accidents, a top US safety official said on Monday.


Gary Visscher, a board member at the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), told an industry conference that since the March 2005 explosion and fire that killed 15 workers and injured 180 others at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, “we have seen an urgent interest in developing a better set of safety indicators across the industry”.


Visscher, whose federally chartered agency is responsible for investigating chemical accidents and conveying lessons learned to industry, noted that the BP tragedy exposed a major flaw in what had been a common industry measure of facility safety, the incidents of personal injuries among site workers.


He said that while BP had a very good record of reducing worker accidents at the Texas City site, those declining figures of on-the-job injuries masked shortcomings in the company’s process safety practices and precautions and contributed to the March 2005 accident that took so many lives.


“We need an across-the-board set of safety indicators that will allow plant operators and managers to gauge a facility’s safety against other facilities within the same company and against other companies’ operations around the country,” Visscher said.


He noted that under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) process safety management (PSM) standards, the number of chemical industry incidents involving worker fatalities has fallen from 24 in 1994 to only five in 2005, “so there has been a lot of improvement in the industry”.


However, he said, even as the number of incidents has declined, such accidents are seen by the public and regulators as increasingly unacceptable.  He noted that while OSHA recorded only five fatal accidents in 2005, one of those was the BP Texas City blast and its 15 fatalities.


“So there is an urgent need to drive development of a new set of safety indicators for the industry,” Visscher said.


Then CSB chairwoman Carolyn Merritt told Congress in July this year that the board would work toward a new body of process safety leading indicators, drawing on all stakeholders in and around the industry.


Merritt resigned in early August.


Visscher also said there were no plans at the safety board to pursue a recommendation by Merritt that the US should consider a government-mandated pre-start review process for chemical production facilities to ensure their safety prior to start-up or re-start of a plant.


Visscher spoke at the opening session of InteChem07, a three-day conference on chemical industry security, safety and environmental performance sponsored by the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA).

By: Joe Kamalick
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