Obama’s Executive Order to Improve Chemical Safety Is Good First Step, But Further Action Needed

The following post is from Dorry Samuels Levine at the National Council For Occupational Safety and Health

President Must Enact Regulations, Increase OSHA Funding, To Adequately Protect Workers and Public

President Barack Obama’s executive order today calling for increased collaboration between government agencies to improve chemical safety for workers and the public must be applauded. But the president’s work is not done there, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) said today.

While the executive order will make progress in addressing the risk to public and worker safety posed by dangerous chemical facilities, the president almost certainly will need to promulgate new regulations to safeguard the country.

“President Obama should be commended for recognizing the urgent need to act to protect workers and the public, taking action through executive order instead of attempting to work through the legislative and bureaucratic logjam of today’s Washington culture,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH. “We applaud the president’s efforts to modernize agency policies in working with stakeholders to address risks, but that is only part of the solution.

“If industry stakeholders march in beating the anti-regulatory drum, the administration must not kowtow to their demands,” O’Connor said. “To adequately respond to the dangers posed by chemical facilities and other dangerous workplaces, further federal regulatory action is needed.”

That said, the president’s action today is an important response to the gap in public and worker safety protections due to an existing lack of coordination among government agencies. Specifically, Obama addressed the need to examine how the government can more effectively reduce risks associated with ammonium nitrate – the chemical presumed responsible for the devastating explosion in West, Texas, in April, which killed 15 people.

Obama’s administration has been criticized for its shortcomings in addressing risks posed by chemical facilities and exposures. Just last week, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board pointed to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) failure to implement recommendations that would do just that, calling the agency’s response to the recommendations “unacceptable.”

“OSHA should take immediate action to follow-up on recommendations made by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, some going back as far as 10 years ago, to expand and enhance its Process Safety Management Standard, which would increase protections for workers and the public,” O’Connor said.

The Process Safety Management (PSM) Standard should be a key tool for OSHA to enforce safe practices in chemical facilities. But in its current form, the standard is too vague to be useful and is nearly impossible for OSHA to enforce.

“OSHA should re-open the PSM standard and make it more prescriptive, giving clearer guidelines for chemical plants, refineries and other dangerous industrial facilities as to how to develop effective chemical safety plans,” O’Connor said.

However, OSHA is dramatically underfunded, enabling the agency to inspect workplaces only once every 100 years or so. Until the agency is more robustly funded, it will never be able to adequately protect worker safety, O’Connor said.

This makes it even more important for OSHA to issue an injury and illness prevention standard, which would require employers to find and fix workplace hazards. A comprehensive injury prevention standard – which OSHA chief David Michaels has proposed – would go a long way toward ensuring that worker safety and public safety would be a top priority for chemical plants and other dangerous facilities.

Learn more about an injury and illness prevention standard.

Click here for more information on the president’s executive order.

Click here for more information on the Chemical Safety Board’s response.

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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.

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