After West Blast, New Protections

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 @ 10:08 AM gHale

Fifteen people died in the April 2013 explosion that ripped through the West Texas Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. Hundreds more suffered injuries in the powerful blast that seriously damaged the city of West.

Following the catastrophe, President Obama asked the Labor Department and other government agencies to close policy gaps in order to prevent similar chemical facility disasters.

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He specifically asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to address an exemption for retail facilities included in the 1992 Process Safety Management standard, or PSM, according to a report from Jordan Barab, the deputy assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.

OSHA issued a new interpretation of that exemption to protect chemical facilities workers more effectively.

The exemption originally meant to apply to retail facilities like gas stations that sold small amounts of chemicals, Barab said. But it ended up interpreted in a way that included facilities like West that stored and sold large amounts of dangerous chemicals.

That meant West and similar facilities did not believe they needed to comply with OSHA’s PSM standard and OSHA did not include them in its subsequent programmed inspection programs such as its Chemical Facilities National Emphasis Program. Because of this, the West facility had not undergone an OSHA inspection since the 1980s.

The new interpretation will make the definition of “retail establishment” in the PSM standard match the common definition used by the Department of Commerce.

It means more facilities that handle large amounts of dangerous chemicals will end up covered by necessary safety measures. Enforcement will phase in over the next six months. During this time, OSHA will not cite facilities for violations unless OSHA finds conditions creating an immediate, severe danger for employees that employers have not made a good faith effort to correct.

The West explosion had a devastating impact not just on the families of those who died, but on the entire community, Barab said. By taking action, we hope that its legacy will be one of greater safety for more workers throughout the country.