US chem safety board seeks limit to flammables in confined spaces

25 August 2010 20:53  [Source: ICIS news]

HOUSTON (ICIS)--US regulatory standards for flammables within confined spaces are inadequate for all industries, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) said on Wednesday.

In a final report on a fatal 2007 chemical fire at Xcel Energy’s power plant in Colorado, the CSB said that requiring companies to perform a hazard analysis prior to receiving permits for work in confined spaces was not enough.

“Other OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations on confined and enclosed spaces - for example in the maritime industry and other sectors – prohibit work in such confined spaces above a specific percentage of the LEL (lower explosive limit), often 10%,” said CSB member Mark Griffon.

“We are recommending that OSHA adopt such enforceable limits for all industry,” he added.

The LEL is the concentration of vapour in air below which ignition will not occur.

In the 2007 incident, nine contractors were working in a penstock 1,500-2,000 feet (457-610 metres) below ground applying an epoxy coating to the inside of a pipe to prevent corrosion when a fire occurred.

From there, the initial fire quickly grew, igniting additional buckets of the solvent, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) and other combustible epoxy materials stored nearby, the CSB said.

Five contractors died.

“Use of safer, nonflammable solvents was not evaluated, continuous air monitoring was not required, and key policies and permit forms did not establish a percentage limit for flammable vapour in the tunnel atmosphere,” CSB investigations supervisor Don Holmstrom said.

The CSB recommended that OSHA establish a fixed maximum percentage of the lower explosive limit for entry so that work in potentially flammable atmospheres would be prohibited, it said.

The CSB does not issue citations or fines, but makes safety recommendations to plants, industry organisations, labour groups and regulatory agencies such as OSHA and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).

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By: Ben DuBose
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