Updated 4/5/10 at 12:24 pm (see postscript)

I’ve been following the news coverage of the catastrophe at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington (here, here, here, here).   Mr. Daniel Aldridge, 50, Mr. Darrin J Hoines, 43, Ms. Donna Van Dreumel, 36, Mr. Matt Bowen, and Ms. Kathryn Powell 29, died from their injuries, and Mr. Lew Janz, 41, and Mr. Matt Gumbel, 34, are in critical condition at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

I couldn’t help but notice the references in several of the stories to OSHA’s National Emphasis Program on Petroleum Refinery Process Safety Management (CPL 03-00-10, reissued Aug 18 2009.*)  As long as I can remember, federal OSHA has labeled these special targeted enforcement activities “National Emphasis Programs,” when they aren’t national at all. 

First, federal OSHA only has authority to conduct inspections in 29 of the 50 States.  The others run their own state-based OH&S regulatory and enforcement apparatus.  For this particular NEP, as for nearly all of them, OSHA tells the state-plan agencies:

“Participation in this national emphasis program…is strongly encouraged, but is not required.”  (OSHA directive, August 2009, see p.4)

Second, when federal OSHA headquarters officials gave written instructions to its field offices about how to select and conduct these refinery inspections, it told them to exempt:

“any refinery establishment which is an approved participant in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program or in OSHA Consultation’s Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP)  (OSHA directive, August 2009, see p.11)

There are about 150 refineries in the U.S.   Substracting those refineries in the States that run their own OH&S programs, another 45 of these operations are excluded from this special OSHA’s targeted inspection initiative because they have the VPP designation.

It seems to me that calling something “national” in scope, when federal OSHA doesn’t even have jurisdication to inspect workplaces in nearly half the States, is misleading. 

What to do about it?

  1. Put your heads together (OSHA) and come up with a different name that more accurately reflects the true scope of these special inspection programs.
  2. Disclose the names of the particular state-based OH&S programs that are in fact conducting comparable targeted inspections  a la the federal OSHA initiative.  This simple act of disclosure, such as a posting on OSHA’s webpage, would allow for greater accountability.  I need to remind myself from time to time that these State OSHA programs receive nearly all about 50% of their funds from the federal government, meaning calls for more transparency and accountability should go with the territory.  [Strikeout correction: thanks to reader of TPH for pointing out this error.]

Postscript (4/5/2010, updated 12:24 pm):  Another reader of TPH provided a link to information on OSHA’s webpage that offers the data I mentioned in bullet #2 above.  At this link: https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/std_fpc.html one can look at the most recent federal OSHA standards and directives, and determine whether the state-based OH&S programs have adopted them.  When I wrote my post yesterday, I didn’t know this information was available on OSHA’s website; previously I had not been able to find it there.  If you look at the information on the State Plan States’ adoption of OSHA’s NEP on refinery process safety management, nine of the States indicate that they do not have any refineries in their respective States, three have (or plan to adopt) comparable alternatives, with the remaining States saying the would not be adopting special enforcement activities related to refineries.  The Washington State Division of OS&H adopted in September 2007 a program identical to federal OSHA’s NEP.