A Call To Update OSHA’s Ammonium Nitrate Standard

In the wake of the deadly and destructive ammonium nitrate explosion at the port of Beirut, U.S. lawmakers asked — in a letter to Department of Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia — that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) update the safety standards controlling the storage, transport, and processing of this substance. Specifically, lawmakers asked the agency to “speed up” a process that began through Executive Order in 2013, immediately after an ammonium nitrate-related explosion at West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas. That tragedy killed 15 people, 12 of them first-responders.

What is ammonium nitrate?

Ammonium nitrate is a chemical compound found in many commercial farm fertilizers. By itself, it is relatively harmless. When combined with fuel oils — and heat or pressure is applied — it creates an explosive charge (blasting agent) used widely in the construction, mining, and quarrying industries. It is also used in some pyrotechnics.

Ammonium nitrate is also popular with terrorist groups throughout the world. In 1995, many Americans learned for the first time what two tons of fertilizer mixed with diesel fuel could do. That was essentially the bomb that an American terrorist put in a rental truck and detonated outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Oversight: too much and not enough

In the Congressional Research Service Report prepared for Congress in 2013, it was clear that part of the problem with regulating the substance concerned communication and coordination between the multiple federal agencies and departments involved in oversight. Other than OSHA, the other government entities with an oversight role include the Department of Homeland Security; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Department of Transportation; the Department of Agriculture; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

What’s OSHA doing?

OSHA began the lengthy regulatory reform process immediately following the Executive Order in 2013, and over the next three years completed several important steps, including the Small Business Advocacy Review Panel process. It’s been sitting on the long-term regulatory agenda since 2016.

In 2018, OSHA did launch a Regional Emphasis Program in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas (OSHA Region VI), and Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska (OSHA Region VII). The instructions to the field offices reveal how OSHA interprets current requirements and what the agency can and cannot enforce.

The recent letter to Secretary Scalia also asked for OSHA to provide Congress with a list of all inspections and enforcement actions involving ammonium nitrate starting on April 17, 2013. A response was requested by August 31. 2020.

What is private industry doing?

After the West Fertilizer Company explosion in 2013, the Agricultural Retailers Association and The Fertilizer Institute worked together to develop ResponsibleAG,  an audit and inspection service helping members ensure “they are compliant with environmental, health, safety, and security regulations.” Both organizations have offered to work with OSHA on the potential update of Ammonium Nitrate storage and processing regulations.

What employers should do

For any employer storing hazardous chemicals, it’s important to know how OSHA defines flammable and combustible substances — as well as the existing rules about hazardous material storage, labeling, processing, and transport.

Employers’ most common mistakes regarding hazardous material storage usually involve storage in unsafe containers, missing or inadequate labeling, and/or insufficient fire or spill protection planning – like the failure to install spill containment barriers or use fire-resistant storage units.

Questions?

If you need assistance with a safety assessment — or have questions about the safe storage of any hazardous material — please let me know.

In the meantime, employers who use and store ammonium nitrate should brush up on the current regulations and prepare for new regulatory activity concerning Process Safety Management (PSM) in the year ahead.

About the Author: James Laboe

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