Members of a tough industry with a spotty reputation, chemical manufacturers are working to adapt world-class production practices and create safe, environmentally conscious workplaces.
The business of manufacturing chemicals doesn't come easy. There's the inherent danger of the materials produced and the danger of those used to produce them; there are the stringent environmental regulations; and there's the NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) factor. Any one of these can sink a business; the chemical industry deals with all three, and others, every day.
The industry's environmental and safety records have not always been exemplary. Major disasters like Love Canal and Bhopal are just two instances of serious chemical-company blunders that were so egregious they have become part of our culture. It wouldn't take long to compile a list of other, lesser-scale disasters.
The good news is that the industry is working hard to minimize if not eliminate the chance for events like these within its working environments. Experts say its efforts are wide ranging, including designing more environmentally friendly plants, using process practices that meet or exceed government requirements, creating company cultures that foster safety, and involving local communities in their businesses. According to an industry consultant contacted for this article, the industry has learned from past mistakes and is well on the way to repositioning itself.
"Safety and environmental issues associated with chemical operations are well understood by everyone in the industry," stresses Ralph Cox, a principal with Tompkins Associates, in Irving, TX. "All the big producers are doing a great job of addressing these aspects of almost every facet of the plant." Maybe EPA and OSHA shouldn't turn their attention elsewhere yet, but according to Cox and others, progress is being made.
One way chemical manufacturers have addressed safety and environmental concerns is in plant design, whether for a new facility or, more often, upgrades for older facilities. Environmental impact now tops the list of design issues, says Deborah McNeil, with Dow Chemical Co.'s Houston, TX-based Project Best Practices. Points of attention include and go well beyond air- and water-discharge issues to detailed specifications for equipment, such as pump seals and flanges that might release fugitive emissions, and other areas where chemicals might leak. Additional precautions include planning for worst-case scenarios like equipment breakage that could cause leaks. "We must always consider that a piece of equipment might break and that chemicals could escape," says McNeil. "We design the plant so there is always a method of containing chemical escapes. Plant designers are required to design a highly controlled environment so we know where every chemical ends up and that it will be treated properly before it leaves the plant fence." The need for this level of control, she adds, typically pushes plant design costs up by as much as 20%.
And mechanical safety elements are just part of the picture. Chemical manufacturers are required to comply with a wide and evolving range of local, stare and federal regulations. These include the three main EPA regulations which affect every chemical manufacturer in the U.S.: the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Many must also adhere to special provisions for hazardous materials and hazard communication laws. All must adhere to OSHA mandates regarding personal protective equipment and issues like proper guarding of equipment. In addition, OSHA requires adherence to special process-industry safety regulations and the creation of a Risk Management Plan.
To assist with compliance of these regulations and to enhance the safety and environmental practices in chemical manufacturing plants, many processors turn to the American Chemistry Council (ACC). In 1988, the Arlington, VA-based organization launched the Responsible Care Program, which is aimed at helping the industry improve its performance in the environmental and safety arena. It includes guidelines for six areas of management practice:
Community awareness and emergency response
Distribution codes that pertain to transporting raw and finished products safely
Process safety codes that are designed to make sure that equipment has the right integrity for the product it's processing and that manufacturers have controls and safety technology in place
Pollution-prevention codes that have helped the chemical industry significantly reduce pollution since the program's inception Employee health and safety codes
Product stewardship codes that are used to bring important safety information to the customers that use and handle the products chemical manufacturers make.
Although federal laws and the ACC codes are designed to make the industry safer, these alone are not enough. Experts stress that the safety and environmental angle must be engrained in the company culture. For instance, Ashland, Inc., incorporated all of its safety and environmental programs under the same Responsible Care banner. "No matter what our people do, it's done under Responsible Care," says Glenn Hammer, vice president of environmental health and safety for refiner Ashland, Inc., Columbus, OH, the parent company of Ashland Specialty Chemical Co. But implementing the safety-intensive program requires effort. "Responsible Care is not a prescriptive program," says Hammer. "You have to take the guiding principles and codes and develop your own program. Then you spend a lot of time conducting training sessions and building a culture inside the company. This approach encourages people to think about Responsible Care, in terms of their obligations to co-workers as well as their legal obligations."
To spread the word, the company developed a number of computer-based training programs for priority topics such as confined-space entry and others. Responsible Care objectives are also part of each employee's annual goals. "Every employee has Responsible Care objectives that must be met," says Hammer. "We are measured on how well we met those when we get our yearly evaluations."
In addition, Ashland formed Responsible Care committees that discuss initiatives under the program. The company also publishes an annual Environmental Health & Safety report for employees. To gauge the effectiveness of its efforts, Ashland conducts detailed bi-annual surveys that track employee familiarity with the company's Responsible Care initiatives. "We try to keep it fresh in people's minds all the time," says Hammer, "because it's crucial that we communicate the importance of safety."
Nearly as important as internal safety, say many chemical producers, is the importance of external communication through local involvement. "In the past you may have lived beside us and not known what we were doing in the plant," says Hammer. "Now we are striving to be open and transparent about what we do. We want people in the community to understand what kind of safety and environmental precautions we take to make sure our operations are sound."
Community involvement programs sometimes include Community Advisory Panels (CAPS). In use throughout the U.S., CAPS provide a forum in which chemical manufacturers can have a dialogue with those who live in plant communities. Topics at the town-meeting style gatherings will include anything from plant expansion projects to environmental health and safety issues, and others. Many chemical manufacturers also offer periodic open-house tours for community members.