Four years ago, in August 2012, a corroded pipe at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California ruptured, resulting in a catastrophic fire in the refinery’s crude unit and a toxic smoke plume that spread over the northeastern San Francisco Bay area. Nineteen Chevron employees were caught up in the vapor cloud, and one was trapped by the resulting fireball. Remarkably, all survived. In the next several days, about 15,000 people in communities surrounding the refinery sought medical attention for symptoms related to smoke exposure. According to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, among the reported health effects were chest pain, shortness of breath, headaches, and sore throat; about 20 people were admitted to hospitals for treatment. Now, the state of California is finalizing regulations designed to help prevent such incidents.
While the United Steelworkers, BlueGreen Alliance and the California Labor Federation are calling for changes to improve the proposal’s clarity and enforceability, the state’s proposal represents a landmark development for Process Safety Management (PSM) in the United States.
PSM is an area of industrial safety that focuses on preventing major incidents in hazardous industries, such as refineries and chemical plants. Compared to worker injuries and illnesses, these events occur less frequently, but—when they do occur—they can have disastrous consequences. BlueGreen Alliance national director of occupational and environmental health, Mike Wilson, explained that “California’s proposal takes many of the best engineering practices and puts them into regulatory language; that’s going to make a real difference in motivating companies to invest in their infrastructure and prevent these kinds of catastrophic events.”
“These changes are long overdue,” he added, “but they are the first serious rewrite of any PSM regulation nationally since the original federal rules were drafted after Bhopal.” That was the catastrophic event in 1984 at a Union Carbide plant in India, when a late-night release of methyl isocyanate killed thousands of sleeping residents. If the new regulations do what process safety advocates say is needed, they have the potential “to change the [process safety] conversation nationally, by redefining what’s possible” says Wilson.”
California’s new rules could have helped prevent the Richmond Chevron refinery disaster. And, says Wilson, if fully implemented, they could also have helped prevent many other process failures, including the 2010 explosion at Tesoro’s Anacortes refinery and the 2015 explosion at ExxonMobil’s refinery in Torrance, California.
Inherent safety first
The California Department of Industrial Relations Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board’s proposed regulations are built on an engineering concept known as “inherent safety,” which the regulations require refinery managers to implement to the “greatest extent feasible.” This approach requires refineries, wherever possible, to use safer chemicals or to design processes to operate more safely, such as by reducing the temperatures, pressures or volumes of chemicals used, or by using piping materials that are more resistant to the effects of damage mechanisms, such as sulfidation corrosion, which caused the Chevron pipe failure.
The regulations require refineries to implement inherent safety measures as part of the “hierarchy of controls,” which the regulations require refineries to apply in mitigating process hazards. Under the “hierarchy,” refineries must implement inherent safety measures and passive safeguards before turning to active safeguards—such as alarms and automatic shut-downs—or worker procedures to ensure the safety of a process.
California Governor Jerry Brown’s Interagency Working Group on Refinery Safety specifically called for the use of inherent safer measures as part of a “hierarchy of controls” in its 2014 report, Protecting Worker and Public Safety at Oil Refineries.
The regulations would also require refineries to give worker representatives – chosen by their peers – a seat at the table in making decisions about process safety. The current federal PSM standard includes guidelines for employee participation, but the California proposal goes further by requiring employee involvement in nearly all aspects of process safety. “This degree of participation,” Wilson explained, “brings expertise to the table from workers who know these processes inside and out. The proposal gives them the authority to advocate for improvements that previously might not have been considered.”
Those improvements could range from major infrastructure investments, such as replacing large segments of corroding pipe, to improving the procedures that workers use in operating these hazardous industrial processes. Each improvement, small or large, can play a role in preventing a small hazard in the plant, such as a pump failure or leaking gasket, to escalate into a major, life-threatening catastrophe. “By requiring meaningful worker participation in these decisions,” says Wilson, “the regulations build in a measure of quality control and accountability that just wasn’t there before.”
Process safety advocates see the twenty-four elements called for in California’s 12,000 word proposal as key to addressing what’s led to so many serious industrial incidents involving hazardous materials and manufacturing processes. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 150 serious chemical releases occur at U.S. industrial and chemical facilities each year, or about one every two-and-a-half days. In 2012 alone, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board tracked 125 significant process safety incidents at the nation’s petroleum refineries. Nearly 23 million Americans live within one mile of a hazardous industrial facility.
Labor advocates and industry weigh in
California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board held a hearing on the proposed regulations on September 15th when a public comment period on the proposal also ended. Representatives of labor, environmental justice and environmental health organizations, as well as the state’s refinery trade association, called attention to problems with the proposal.
In their comments, the Western States Petroleum Association called the proposed regulations “overbroad” and said they “overstep” the state’s authority and “would neither improve safety performance nor provide material benefits.” On the other hand, the California Labor Federation, United Steelworkers, and BlueGreen Alliance, along with the Sierra Club, California Nurses Association, CWA and over 20 other organizations – expressed concern that the proposed regulations lack specific deadlines and other requirements that they consider essential for the regulations to bring about the changes called for in the Governor’s report.
The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) is now reviewing the public comments on the proposed regulations, explained DIR spokesperson Julia Bernstein. If the agency decides only minor changes are needed in response to public comments, a revised proposal will be released for a 15-day public comment period. If major revisions are made, there will be a 45-day public comment period. In either case, the final regulation must be adopted by July 15, 2017, one year after the proposal was first submitted by DIR to the Standards Board.