NIOSH has backed away from comments it provided to OSHA on how to expand OSHA’s process safety management (PSM) standard, saying it did so based on a re-evaluation of the science underpinning its earlier recommendations.
OSHA issued a public call for comments last December seeking suggestions for upgrading its PSM standard and preventing major chemical accidents. The request followed an explosion and fire at a Texas fertilizer facility in April 2013 that claimed 15 lives and resulted in millions of dollars in property damage. OSHA’s initiative was in response to a presidential Executive Order for federal agencies to develop better ways to prevent chemical accidents.
On March 6, NIOSH made three recommendations in comments it submitted to OSHA. One suggestion called for OSHA to include a “safety case” approach in its PSM standard. The safety case regime, NIOSH said, is “proactive” and “performance-based,” requiring employers to define appropriate controls for safe operation, evaluate their adequacy for the facility and decide how to implement and maintain them. “The employer is responsible for ensuring safe operation of the facility and a license is required to operate the hazardous process/facility,” wrote NIOSH, which referenced a publication about the safety case system in Australia. One provision of the safety case approach requires employers to implement safer designs, and NIOSH recommended that as well. The organization called designing out risks “[o]ne of the best ways to prevent and control occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities.” It pointed out that NIOSH leads a national initiative called Prevention through Design.
However, NIOSH submitted a second letter to the OSHA comment docket saying it wished to substitute new comments for the ones it had submitted earlier. The revision retained a recommendation for a qualified person to be a part of the team conducting process hazard analysis, but stripped out the safety case and inherently safer design suggestions.
The second letter was dated June 6, which was more than two months after the March 31 close of OSHA’s comment period and the day a White House multi-agency federal task force made public its chemical safety and emergency response recommendations.
The substitution “was based on a re-evaluation of the evidentiary basis foundation for the March 6, 2014 comments,” Paul A. Schulte, Director of NIOSH’s Education and Information Division, said in a cover letter. Schulte told the Charleston Gazette “a variety of stakeholders” had told NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard at scientific conferences of their concerns about the March recommendations.
“The director called for a re-review of what we had said,” Schulte told the newspaper. “Upon looking at it further, while there are advocates for those positions, we didn’t see that there was actually a scientific basis that attested they were more effective than what was currently being done. We didn’t want to be in a position of recommending something to OSHA that didn’t have a good evidentiary basis.”
One advocate favoring the safety case approach is the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB). However, the task force dismissed CSB’s proposal, saying that “nearly all comments received regarding the adoption of the safety case regulatory model were negative,” according to the newspaper.