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May 03, 2013
Millions said to be at risk from hydrofluoric acid

The tragic explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant has focused attention on worker protection and issues including OSHA’s capacity to inspect hazardous workplaces. Now a United Steelworkers (USW) study warns that refineries using hydrofluoric acid (HF) to produce clean-burning gasoline are not prepared to handle a release of the dangerous chemical.

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Hydrofluoric acid is a solution of hydrogen fluoride in water. It is regulated by OSHA and by the Environmental Protection Agency as a highly toxic chemical. Exposure can cause severe burns and damage to the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and respiratory system. At high exposures, HF can be deadly. It can form a vapor cloud if accidentally released.

According to the USW, 50 U.S. oil refineries use it in their alkylation process, and each of those sites stores more than 200,000 pounds of concentrated HF. Some 26 million people who work and live within 3 to 25 miles of these plants are at risk, says USW.

Safety experts from inside and outside USW examined the safety of USW-represented refineries using HF to see how well they were managing the risk of a release.

At 3 quarters of the plants, a total of 131 HF-related incidents or near misses had occurred in the previous 3 years. Sixteen sites reported that workers were or could have been injured during the most serious HF-related events. Safety systems were found “less than very effective” in maintaining the integrity of the HF alkylation processes in an emergency. And most sites were not adequately prepared to provide emergency personal protective equipment (PPE) for workers during a release.

USW says alkylation can be made safer and suggests the government could help by performing more inspections. The study, A Risk Too Great: Hydrofluoric Acid in U.S. Refineries, is available on the USW website, http://www.USW.org.

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