Perfect Foresight - Making hazardous chemical safety procedures a priority

Perfect Foresight

Making hazardous chemical safety procedures a priority

In the weeks following the massive explosion at a warehouse owned by Ruihai International Logistics in the Chinese port of Tianjin, investigators are getting a better idea of what led to the disaster that killed 173 people—104 of whom were firefighters—and injured hundreds more. It’s been reported that top executives repeatedly disregarded safety regulations with inaccurate chemical reporting while officials from the city’s transportation commission overlooked the illegal work being carried out by the company.

Of course, it is almost always easier to draw the short line between cause and effect following a disaster and to determine what steps could have prevented it from occurring. The question is how to get companies and agencies to draw the line before the incident happens and then to take the appropriate steps to ensure the line is never connected.

Here in the United States, there’s hope the Tianjin disaster has motivated companies to assess their own hazardous chemical management processes and to confirm that their facilities are following the most up-to-date regulations. Following are a few key regulations and enforcement policies in place in the United States that companies handling hazardous chemicals should be aware of (depending on their chemical mix) that safeguard employees and communities against a disaster similar to the blast in Tianjin.


Title III of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA), also known as the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), sets requirements for local and state emergency planning around hazardous chemicals, the right of the public to access information on chemical hazards in their community, and the reporting responsibilities for facilities that use, store, and/or release hazardous chemicals.

SARA Title III, or EPCRA, has four main components, including Emergency Planning, Emergency Release Notification, Hazardous Chemical Storage Reporting Requirements, and Toxic Chemical Release Inventory. In addition to the annual reporting via Tier II reports of chemicals and chemical quantities present in facilities above thresholds set by the EPA, EPCRA requires the owner, operator, or person in charge of a facility to immediately notify proper authorities as soon as they have actual knowledge of a reportable release.


While SARA Title III focuses on the public’s right to know the hazardous chemicals manufactured, stored, and used in nearby facilities, OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HazCom) focuses on employees’ right to know the nature of the chemical hazards to which they are exposed.

Under HazCom, everyone involved in the manufacture, transport, distribution, and use of hazardous chemicals shares a responsibility in communicating chemical hazard information to downstream users through the transmittal of safety data sheets and the proper use of labels. Additionally, employers are required to a) maintain a written plan detailing their facility’s HazCom program, b) maintain an up-to-date chemical inventory, c) provide employees with access to safety data sheets, d) ensure that immediate containers of chemicals are properly labeled, and e), train employees on the HazCom Standard, as well as on the specific hazards of the chemicals to which they are exposed.

Unfortunately, HazCom violations have consistently ranked second or third on OSHA’s annual list of the top ten most frequently cited standards for most of the last decade—which suggests employers are not following through on the minimum requirements of HazCom and that employees across an array of industries are at risk of injury and illness due to chemical exposure. It’s a supposition supported by research out of the University of California, Berkeley, that determined more than 50,000 deaths a year could be attributed to chemical exposure.


In 2013, following the West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion, the president signed an executive order to improve chemical safety in the United States Executive Order #13650 (EO) called for a Working Group led by the EPA, OSHA, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to review the state of hazardous chemical safety in the United States and identify areas of improvement. The order also called on agencies to take steps to mitigate the risks of chemical incidents going forward using their existing authority.

To that end, in 2014 and 2015, the Working Group published several reports and fact sheets detailing their efforts and recommendations. Key initiatives underway include the consolidation of disparate agency chemical data into a single database within the EPA’s facility registry system (FRS). The consolidated data should make it easier for agencies to cross reference and identify outliers—facilities that appear on one agency’s list but not another’s, or facilities that are not reporting despite operating in industries that typically have reporting obligations. In the age of big data, inconsistencies and errors that indicate potential misreporting of hazardous chemical information are easier to uncover.

Similarly, agencies are cross-training their inspectors to ensure that individuals from one agency know and are on the lookout for issues important to the other agencies.


One of the reasons the EPA, OSHA, and DHS were selected to chair the EO interagency Working Group is that each of these agencies has regulations aimed primarily at facilities using chemicals in large quantities or of an extremely hazardous nature. They are the Risk Management Plan Rule (RMP) enforced by the EPA; the Process Safety Management Standard (PSM) enforced by OSHA; and the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) enforced by DHS.

RMP and PSM are very similar in the chemicals and facilities they target. RMP is focused on the effects of chemical incidents on the community around the facility, whereas PSM is focused primarily on the safety of employees and emergency responders. CFATS is concerned with similar chemicals and facilities, but from a national security perspective and mitigating the risk to people from the intentional release, theft, diversion, and sabotage or contamination of chemicals.

Under the RMP, companies holding more than a threshold quantity (TQ) of a regulated substance are required to do a hazard assessment that details the potential effects of an accidental release, an accident history of the last five years, and an evaluation of worst-case and alternative accidental release. They also must implement a prevention program that addresses safety precautions, maintenance, monitoring, and employee training measures, plus clearly communicate an emergency response program that includes emergency health care, employee training measures, and procedures for informing the public and response agencies should an accident occur.

Under the PSM, key requirements include a process hazard analysis that involves a careful review of potential chemical accidents that could occur based on the chemicals present and a review of what safeguards are in place to keep incidents from occurring. Companies must provide written operating procedures, employee training and participation, pre-startup safety reviews, evaluation of the mechanical integrity of critical equipment, contractor requirements, and written procedures for managing change. These companies often have EPA Tier II reporting responsibilities, including the requirement to share safety data sheets with their local first responders.

Under CFATS, certain companies are required to register with DHS, assess their threat risk, and work with the agency to take the appropriate steps to safeguard their facility from potential terrorist attacks. Initially authorized by Congress in 2007, the program requires facilities identified as high risk to meet and maintain performance-based security standards. It involves a dynamic, multi-tiered risk assessment process. Again, a facility with responsibilities under one of these three standards is likely to have additional responsibilities under one or both of the others. The rigor of each of these standards is substantial and many facilities qualify for coverage without realizing it, either because they have chemicals in larger quantities than expected (as the reporting threshold is usually based on an aggregate quantity for the year, not just the amount on premise at any given time) or because they have chemicals of an extremely hazardous nature on site for which the reporting thresholds are much lower.


One of the best lines of defense a company has against a chemical disaster is following these three key steps:

  • Have an accurate picture of the hazardous chemicals on premises and their quantities.
  • Draft a detailed plan of action with processes in place for preventing an incident from occurring, as well as a detailed plan for mitigating any accidental chemical release.
  • Collaborate with first responders and local and state agencies before an incident occurs because open and active dialogue is crucial.

When it comes to chemical safety, as the recent blast in China has demonstrated, the stakes are high and the regulations companies must navigate to safeguard employees and their communities can be rigorous. However, it is also true that there is more help available to companies today to meet even the most arduous compliance and safety challenges. Cloud-based environment, health, safety, and sustainability management software solutions make it easier than ever to track and report on chemicals and safety processes across facilities.

While there’s no magic ball that can determine when the next disaster will strike, precaution and preparation are the best line of defense any company can have to protect against accidents.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Security Today.


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