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Obama Orders New Chemical Safety Rules

President Obama today ordered federal agencies to develop new rules to address the handling and storage of industrial chemicals such as the ammonia nitrate fertilizer that caught fire and exploded in West, Texas, killing 15 and leveling large portions of the town in April.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says the executive order was “urgently needed to improve chemical safety and security throughout the country” and:

Provides the direction and road map to address chemical hazards. The AFL-CIO looks forward to working with government agencies and other stakeholders to see that this order is implemented promptly and fully so our nation’s workplaces and communities are safe and secure.

The Texas plant was exempt from key Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) safety rules and had not been inspected by OSHA since 1985.

The Texas explosion was only the latest in a long series of chemical accidents that have resulted from gaps in regulation, deadly explosions caused by reactive chemicals and processes that are exempt from OSHA’s process safety management standard have killed and injured hundreds of workers in the past two decades.

Eleven years ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) urged EPA—which hasn’t updated its rules on ammonia nitrate since 1997—to adopt its safety recommendations for storage, handling and use of the chemical. Following the April explosion, CSB urged immediate action. 

Along with outlining a comprehensive action plan to address chemical hazards, once in place the new rules will improve coordination of EPA, OSHA, the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies in their efforts to address these deadly hazards. It will provide local first responders with ready access to information so they can prepare for and respond to chemical emergencies, and it will enhance oversight of high-risk facilities.

Trumka says he hopes today’s order will "spur action to modernize chemical safety regulations, including OSHA’s process safety management standard, which the AFL-CIO and unions have been seeking for many years."

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