The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) had released its final report on the Chevron Refinery Incident that occurred on August 6, 2012. (The final report can be found here.) Additionally, the CSB has issued some recommendations regarding how refineries should be regulated. (See the CSB press release) At issue is the process safety management (PSM) program and how it is managed. Today the CSB sees PSM as primarily reactive rather than a proactive adapted program.
PSM and other regulations such as the SARA Community Right to Know have been under a great deal of scrutiny of late due to incidents like this one and the one that occurred in West, TX. Yes, as responsible operators there is a duty to engineer processes to reduce risk to their employees and to the surrounding communities. In addition to upfront planning, i.e. designing in safety, responsible operators need to be reviewing current safety procedures and systems to minimize risks associated with existing processes and facilities.
Since the 1980's, there have been numerous regulations adopted in response to specific incidents as well as an attempt to prevent future incidents. Depending upon the specific industry, there have been voluntary standards implemented to reduce risk. Thus, over the past 30 years, there have been improvements in safety, safety culture, and in development of systems to minimize risk. This is a good thing.
Yet, we must be reminded of a few key points:
1) There are always unintended consequences associated with any regulation. While a regulation may sound good on paper - implementation may actually produce situations contrary to what was intended. (For example, when some of the first monitoring requirements were promulgated - there were situations where the installation of the equipment would have required some extremely hazardous operations. When these were recognized, there were changes that were made.) Additionally, regulation always adds a level of complexity to any process. This complexity may actually result in added risk.
2) There is not as much sharing between industries as there could be. For example, there are numerous facilities that do not fall under PSM. This does not mean that these facilities or industries should not look at some of the principles that being implemented. Similarly, PSM may not be the ultimate solution for large facilities. Sharing of near misses, inspections, and audit findings can be of benefit; yet because of how the media and our litigious society reacts sharing of key findings may not be as widely distributed as they could be.
3) Common sense needs to return to both the industries and the public. Why, for example, have green belts around facilities been challenged? Why would individuals be willing to have trucks carrying hazardous materials routinely be transported through population centers, yet try to block pipelines or rail options? There is a huge disconnect in the understanding of risk.
We as environmental and safety professionals need to be aware of a multitude of aspects associated with the particular operations, cultural aspects (internal company, plant specific, and community), advances in both technology and procedures, and the changes regulatory environment. We have to be aware and communicate.