Outside OSHA’s Umbrella

FROM THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE: Organizational standards and safety strategies can help eliminate incidents that fall outside the coverage of OSHA regulations.
By Tim Albrecht | August 14, 2018

Full compliance with all Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations still doesn't completely remove all risk of workplace incidents,  says Nathan Vander Griend, president and CEO of ERI Solutions Inc.

About 60 percent of incidents in the ethanol industry are the result of violations of OSHA’s regulations. That means the remaining 40 percent occur even under  compliance, Vander Griend says. Still, those can be eliminated by following suggested, nonmandatory organizational standards and safety strategies cited under OSHA’s general duty clause, he says. The clause simply specifies that employers must provide a workplace free of recognized hazards that could cause injury or death.

“There’s been no government requirement for ethanol producers to scrutinize those areas to the same degree,” he says. “That’s led to people being less educated on the hazards of those systems and, in turn, led to a lot of incidents, some of significant size, for this industry.”

Looking Past OSHA
OSHA’s regulations are the baseline for a facility, but producers shouldn’t be complacent beyond them, says Scott Beard, corporate safety officer for Merjent Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Minneapolis. Beard cites National Fire Protection Association and American Petroleum Institute regulations and standards as good examples for producers to follow to keep their facilities safe.

For instance, OSHA’s compliance regulations say a plant’s process safety management (PSM) program needs to cover areas of the facility that contain flammable or toxic, reactive, or explosive materials, which for producers is “basically, distillation, dehydration, evaporation, tank farm, loadouts and anhydrous ammonia,” Vander Griend says. “But there are other areas of a plant, such as the fermentation, drying, pollution/emission control devices, that aren’t managed under that program at all.

“Let’s say a dryer or pollution/emission control device blows up in the facility,” he adds. “What happened? Did we ever go through a formal process to identify and analyze the hazards of that process in the first place? The answer for four out of five ethanol plants would be no.”

If the processes in an ethanol plant that are not PSM covered were treated like those that are covered, it could be assumed those hazards and subsequent incidents would be significantly minimized, Vander Griend says. “The industry hasn’t had many fires in distillation systems, likely due to the fact that we focus on them so heavily. But there have been a lot of incidents in the drying and pollution/emission control systems at plants. I would argue it’s because we don’t pay as much attention to them.”

As part of the PSM, OSHA mandates a process hazard analysis (PHA), which is a risk assessment tool that identifies worst-case scenarios regarding the release of a flammable or toxic material that could cause harm. The PHA should be expanded, however, to include evaluating employees’ competency, physical hazards and culture, Vander Griend says. The goal is to identify areas of the facility where the risk is considered too high and to develop a plan to reduce it.

“If you were going to operate an ethanol plant starting next week, your concern now is the responsibility of all the employees and keeping the plant running,” Vander Griend says. “And if you knew there have been 20 decent-sized incidents that caused people to get hurt and they were all driven out of the dryer system of a plant, you would dig into ensuring that system is as safe as possible.”

While the PSM covers mostly flammable and toxic chemicals, many safety-related topics are still in OSHA’s purview under other regulations or the general duty clause, Beard says. “There are additional programs and systems available for facilities that want to focus on reducing safety incidents beyond those covered by PSM.”

A plant manager could, for instance, create a culture in which safety is a responsibility of every employee, Beard says. “At facilities I’ve encountered that go above and beyond the OSHA standard, it starts at the plant manager or general manager level and it’s a part of every employee’s life. It’s very clear the minute you walk on site.”

Mike Jerke, general manager of Corn Plus in Winnebago, Minnesota, embraces the idea of safety culture at his facility, calling it a “collective focus.

“People can easily default to this notion that because you have somebody who wears the title of environmental health and safety manager that they’re the ones that worry about it,” Jerke says. “So, you really have to keep the focus around everyone being a part of it.”

Corn Plus has a safety committee with representation from all departments, made up of typically shift supervisors, as well as Jerke and the EHS manager. The committee meets monthly, at a minimum, and has a running list of items to address. The committee reviews the existing list, provides updates on progress, takes ownership of the various items, discusses any new items that need to be established and reviews near misses or other events that occurred in the previous 30 days, along with measures taken to handle them.

‘Psychology of Safety’
Beard encourages plants to look internally and identify where their staffs rank in safety. “Start at the top. It has to be a message from the highest level of management first and they can’t just talk about it, they have to live it.”

Jerke uses many resources to develop practices and guidelines for his staff and plant. Insurance companies, for instance, send engineers to conduct periodic inspections to ensure facilities are following their regulations and identify areas in need of improvement, he says.

“Companies such as ERI will do a full-blown audit of your facility,” Jerke says. “That keeps people tuned into various important details that need to be maintained and handled in order to operate the facility in a safe way.”

Identifying behavioral safety hazards is crucial also, Beard says. “If you have 10 employees that walk over a hose on the ground with no problem and the eleventh trips on it, falls, and is hurt, part of your investigation should include an analysis on what, if anything, makes that employee different.
“Many industries have moved beyond traditional safety programs to the psychology of safety itself, including the different types of personalities and how they learn and interpret guidance on safety,” Beard adds. “These programs can help identify individuals that may need more frequent reminders or a unique training delivery method.”

Incentivized Safety Sword
Incentivized safety programs were once common, introduced when the ethanol industry was getting on its feet. But those suggestions were a double-edged sword, Vander Griend says. Plant employees essentially could choose between reporting an incident, or keeping it private to continue benefitting from the incentive program, he says. “This can cause a minor injury to develop into something major and the incentive actually caused the injury to develop. They can also be positive, but caution must be taken to structure them well.”

Beard adds, “It’s like having a sign up that says ‘1,300 days since our last recordable injury.’ This type of safety program may de-incentivize communication and reporting of injuries, near misses, and first aids because the goal will become to keep that number high and not necessarily to keep people safe.” An incentive-based safety program can work, but it needs to establish and measure the proper metrics, Beard says.

Jerke agrees. “Those programs have to be carefully thought out. The challenge can be if you’re providing an incentive for a period of time with no lost time or no reportable accidents, then you have someone who gets injured, but for peer pressure, they’re not telling anyone in order to still get that bonus.” For that reason, the Corn Plus safety program includes an anonymous suggestion box employees can use to report concerns, Jerke says.

All plant staff should be involved in safety, experts say, and more communication with all employees of the plant increases a safety program’s success. “The more information you have as a safety manager the easier it is to predict what’s going to come next,” Beard says.

And, of course, more communication and information about hazards helps a plant design a proper safety protocol, aiming above and beyond its legal OSHA obligations.

Author: Tim Albrecht
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine