Useful safety information from the US

One always has to be careful about information released on April Fools’ Day but in 2011 an important pieces of safety information from the United States was released – a video message from the Chemical Safety Board (CSB).  A reader also pointed to a set of OHS case studies from the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMASS) released in January.

Twelve months after the Tesoro Refinery fire in Washington in which seven people died, CSB is continuing its investigation but has released a video message, by Chairperson Rafael Moure-Eraso, that is confronting and displays the exasperation of  safety regulators.

Moure-Eraso says that initial investigations point to the failure of a 450-year-old heat exchanger that failed as a result of  having “microscopic cracks from what is known as high temperature hydrogen attack”.  He uses this situation as a call for companies to instigate or continue their maintenance programs.

Although the industry in the video is petrochemical, inadequate maintenance is a major safety risk in a range of industries including transport, infrastructure and a broad range of large and small manufacturers.  The CSB media release accompanying the safety video lists some points that are widely relevant:

  • “Implement a robust mechanical integrity programs with an emphasis on thorough inspections of critical equipment
  • Monitor process safety performance using appropriate leading and lagging indicators to measure process safety before major accidents occur
  • Maintain an open and trusting safety culture where near-misses and loss of containment incidents are reported and investigated”

The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts has published “Lessons Learned – Solutions for Workplace  Safety and Health“, a 130-page document detailing six case studies and a major criticism of the United States’ Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  (An executive summary is available)  The case studies focus on

  • “Floor finishers, lacquer sealers, and fires: safer product alternatives are the solution
  • When my job breaks my back: shouldering the burden of work-related musculoskeletal disorders
  • The poison that smells like butter: diacetyl and popcorn workers’ lung disease
  • Injuries are not accidents: construction will be safe when it’s designed to be safe
  • Regulating methylene chloride: a cautionary tale about setting health standards one chemical at a time
  • Safe food from safe workplaces: protecting meat and poultry processing workers”

There are few hazard types that are not covered by one of these case studies.  These are certainly instructive to OHS professionals and should be obligatory reading.

The fortieth anniversary of OSHA has provided it a substantial kicking by critics.  The UMASS report  provides a short list of failures:

  • “Chronic under-reporting of occupational injury and illness rates in national surveillance systems;
  • An enforcement system based heavily on small penalties and inspections that never reach the vast majority of establishments covered by the OSH Act;
  • A slow, reactive hazard-by-hazard rule-making system that has failed to adopt or update standards for preventing injuries from widespread ergonomic and chemical hazards including known carcinogens; accepts risks to workers that are magnitudes greater than are considered acceptable for the general population; and cannot keep pace with rapid technological change in the American workplace; and
  • Constant legal challenges by industry that have resulted in OSHA rule-making requirements that place greater emphasis on reducing economic impacts than on reducing illness and injury.”

These sorts of criticisms could be equally applied to OHS regulators in other countries and jurisdictions.

The CSB video message, almost, pleads with the petrochemical industry to invest more money and attention to maintenance but the request could be applied to many industry sectors.  UMASS provides a publications that is critical of the OHS regulator but provides case studies on failures so that we can learn.  Both are well-intentioned safety initiatives from reputable organisations that demand or attention and consideration.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia

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