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After Spate of Fatal Chemical Plant Explosions, Legislation Needed to Tighten Safety and Security

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
Press Contacts: 

Dorry Samuels Levine, (508) 277-7997, dorry.samuels@gmail.com

After Spate of Fatal Chemical Plant Explosions, Legislation Needed to Tighten Safety and Security

Federal Legislation Should Require Companies to Consider Less Hazardous Substitutes, Strengthen Whistleblower Protections

Given last week’s two deadly chemical plant explosions in Louisiana, not to mention April’s fatal explosion at a fertilizer storage facility in West, Texas, new federal legislation tightening chemical plant safety and security is needed, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) said today.

This legislation should include requirements for Inherently Safer Technology (IST) reviews by plants using particularly hazardous chemicals. Such reviews would require these hazardous facilities to examine options for adopting safer chemicals or processes and adopt them if feasible. 

Efforts to adopt IST into federal legislation have been thwarted thus far. But with the recent spate of fatal chemical disasters, these requirements should be adopted immediately, said Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH. 

“New Jersey state law already requires this and it has been successful in reducing the hazards posed by chemical plants,” said Denise Patel, chemical safety project coordinator at the NJ Work Environment Council, New Jersey's COSH group. “Accidents at plants have been on the rise in the last few years. Deregulation and funding cuts to OSHA and EPA are not the answer. It's time for strong federal action to protect America's workers and communities.”

Added O’Connor, “It isn’t a complicated or overly burdensome process. Companies using highly toxic chemicals should be required to examine possible substitutes that are less hazardous.”

Finally, whistleblower protections must be enhanced for all workers to ensure that employees at these dangerous facilities feel comfortable pointing out hazards without fear of losing their jobs or any other form of retaliation, O’Connor said. Workers should be involved in all aspects of plant health and safety systems.

It must be noted that both of the companies responsible for last week’s blasts had prior problems with health and safety.

The Williams Olefins plant, responsible for last Thursday’s explosion in Geismar, La., that has killed two and injured dozens more, had another safety incident in 2009 when about 60 pounds of a flammable mixture was released, resulting in a fire that damaged nearby property. The plant had not been inspected by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) since 1993.

“It is not surprising that OSHA hadn’t inspected the Geismar plant in two decades,” O’Connor said. “Given the agency’s hamstrung budget, federal OSHA only has the resources to inspect workplaces, on average, once every 131 years. Without stronger oversight in place, it will not be unusual for similar disasters to occur.”

While OSHA had more recently inspected the plant run by CF Industries – the company responsible for Friday’s explosion in Donaldsonville, La. – it fined the company nearly $150,000 for 14 safety and health violations.

“This recent spate of chemical plant explosions confirms what we have been saying for years,” O’Connor said. “Plants storing or using highly hazardous chemicals must be required to assess whether safer options are feasible and must be subject to rigorous and regular inspection by OSHA and the EPA.”

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The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health is a federation of local and statewide organizations; a private, non-profit coalition of labor unions, health and technical professionals, and others interested in promoting and advocating for worker health and safety.

To learn more about the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, visit: http://www.coshnetwork.org.