The explosion that killed a natural gas pipeline installer along a busy Alabama freeway could be heard and felt for miles. An investigation by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration shows that the explosion was caused by the improper storage of flammable welding gases. A variety of chemicals were inside a large shipping container that was not ventilated. The chemicals ignited when the employee opened the door.
"Employers who use hazardous chemicals in their workplaces are required to train employees on chemical safety data sheets and labels, and incorporate safety controls to protect employees from those hazards," said OSHA officer Ramona Morris. "This tragedy could have been avoided if the employer had followed required procedures for storing dangerous gases."
OSHA’s rules on proper storage of welding gases, as well as employee training, can be found in 29 CFR Part 1910 Subpart H. Additionally, chemical labeling and signage is a key part of OSHA’s HazCom 2012 regulations. Data over the past few years show that violations involving hazard communication are increasing. For several years, HazCom has been the second most violated standard among OSHA’s Top 10. With 4,552 violations, 2018 saw an increase of 9% over 2017. For 2017-2018, there have been at least 25 investigations of worker deaths by exposure to chemicals, according to OSHA reports.
The Chemical Safety Board assists OSHA in educating facilities on safety best practices for hazardous materials and chemical handling. According to the CSB, it continued assisting on several cases in 2017, while taking on five new cases.
“Over the past decade of investigating chemical incidents, the CSB has found that effective emergency response training and planning, as well as communication between the company, emergency responders, and the community, are critical to preventing injuries and fatalities from chemical incidents,” the agency said in its October report.
Unsafe chemical storage causes injuries and deaths, not only for workers, but also for members of the public and responding emergency crews. Storing materials properly and carefully will help to limit chemical hazards; however, it does not eliminate them. While location and set up of hazardous materials is important, here are a few more precautionary tips to keep workplaces even safer:
- Identify the hazard: Check the chemical’s label and pay attention to its properties and characteristics. Some materials can cause health problems, ranging from headaches to cancer, while others can be dangerously flammable or explosive.
- Maintain communication: Use safety data sheets to keep track of the detailed information about each chemical. Check both the label and the SDS prior to working with chemicals and storing them.
- Prepare for an emergency: Effective planning and preventive actions can minimize losses. Have emergency and clean up stations stocked, identified and ready to go if needed.
- Gear up: Help workers understand what personal protective equipment to use for various substances and situations. PPE needs to be matched to the hazards that are present, and it should always be used as the last line of defense after other controls are in place.
It is important to maintain a high level of safety when both working with and storing chemicals and other hazardous materials. Be aware of the potential hazards chemicals can pose to workers. Chemical accidents can cause havoc across the workplace and even in surrounding neighborhoods. Perform a job hazard analysis (JHA) to identify chemicals and equipment that could cause a spark or other reaction. Use safer materials and equipment when possible. Examine housekeeping policies and keep workplaces neat and clean. Inspect containers and chemical storage areas for corrosion, wear, and damage that could be a potential hazard. Ensure all safety signs and labels on chemicals are correct and maintained for clarity. Train workers on hazardous substances using up-to-date videos, infographics, safety tips and more that support a strong HazCom 2012 program.