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Preventing workplace injuries may mean closing federal loophole

Although the devastating news of the explosion at the fertilizer plant was somewhat shrouded by the Boston Marathon bombings, Ohioans are probably now paying close attention to what caused the accident and how regulations need to change to prevent future accidents and workplace injuries. The fertilizer plant explosion in Texas killed 15 people. Authorities know that the explosion was from the stores of ammonium nitrate at the facility but they still aren't sure what ignited the chemical. The powerful blast destroyed 37 blocks of land.

Investigators have made it clear that the chemicals were not safely stored and that both state and federal agencies in charge of oversight missed this important fact. For some reason, workplace regulatory agencies don't focus on the dangers of explosive compounds and fires and it is no question that there needs to be more regulation on this issues, especially since nearly 2,500 businesses nationwide store ammonium nitrate.

State standards did not cover safe storage of the chemical and federal agencies also missed the boat. The last time that OSHA inspected the fertilizer plant was in 1985. And another federal agency only regulates the chemicals as they are transported to and from the plant.

Next up is the Environmental Protection Agency, whose job is to keep people (and the environment) safe from hazardous chemicals. But the EPA doesn't require a risk-management plan for ammonium nitrate, even given its obvious risks.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms deals with explosive materials that are more powerful than the chemical at issue in Texas. All of these facts point to a major hole in regulation of ammonium nitrate and other similar chemicals.

In any event, regulations and standards are likely to change in the future. But until that point, employers should learn from the Texas explosion and take important measures to make sure that employees are safe and reduce the chance of workplace accidents. Although injured employees may be covered by workers' compensation, which can help pay for medical bills and time away from work, it is better for everyone to cut off the risk of injury in the first place.

Source: Bloomberg, "Texas Blast Reveals the Holes in Chemical Oversight," May 30, 2013

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