Reactive chemicals are unstable. Some can rapidly break down into hazardous forms, and others are capable of reacting alone or in a mixture. When a chemical reaction is triggered, a catastrophic explosion can result.

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LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“Many Laborers do maintenance work at chemical plants throughout the U.S. and Canada and can be exposed to this danger,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan. “Since 1995, unions and safety professionals have urged OSHA to add reactive chemicals to its Process Safety Management standard, but the Bush Administration blocked action. We applaud OSHA’s decision to renew work on this issue.”

O’Sullivan’s comment follows up reaction to the September release of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) report on the reactive chemical explosion at T2 Laboratories in Jacksonville, Florida. The December 2007 blast killed four people and injured 32 others. It was caused when employees at T2 Laboratories, a gasoline additive manufacturer, mixed over half a ton of sodium metal with other chemicals. The plant was destroyed and a number of neighboring businesses were badly damaged. A CSB video vividly summarizes the chain of events and serves as an effective educational tool for avoiding similar situations.

Despite the CSB’s 2002 efforts to incorporate reactive chemicals into the Process Safety Management (PSM) rule – an effort that was rebuked by the Bush Administration – the September CSB report failed to call for increased regulation. A number of unions and professional safety associations criticized the CSB, and Congressman George Miller (D – CA), Chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Congresswomen Lynn Woolsey (D – CA) and Corrine Brown (D – FL) issued a letter to Acting OSHA Director Jordan Barab, asking the agency to renew efforts to amend the PSM.

Reactive Chemicals

Reactive chemical incidents can cause serious harm to life, property and the environment. They are a significant concern in the chemical processing industry. The OSHA list of highly reactive chemicals includes Ammonia, which is used in the manufacture of fertilizer, plastics, rayon and nylon; Chlorine, used for bleaching cotton, wood pulp and sterilizing drinking water; and Fluorine, used in nuclear power generation. OSHA’s list of over one hundred reactive chemicals is available on the OSHA website.

According to a report in the September 28 issue of Inside OSHA, the agency is now beginning work on a compliance directive to restore focus on the problem. A compliance directive can take almost immediate effect while modifying standards often takes years. Critics welcomed the new initiative but, at the same time, stressed the importance of upgrading the PSM.

The PSM’s purpose is prevention and/or minimization of the consequences of catastrophic release of toxic, reactive, flammable or explosive Highly Hazardous Chemicals (HHC’s). Currently, the PSM covers substances such as flammable and combustible liquids, but does not specifically address reactive hazards. A 2006 CSB report found that approximately 249 reactive incidents had occurred since July 2001. The CSB has also concluded that enforcement of a reactive hazard standard could have prevented the T2 tragedy.

“It doesn’t take much to set off a reactive chemical event,” says O’Sullivan, noting that exposure to air, light, heat or vibration can all lead to a lethal blast. “Adding reactive chemicals to the PSM rule simply makes good sense. It will alert chemical manufacturers to the dangers and provide chemical plant employees with procedures to prevent these catastrophes.”

 [Janet Lubman Rathner]