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September 06, 2013
Agencies partner to protect employees from explosion risks

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other federal agencies are taking steps to help employers understand the hazards posed by ammonium nitrate (AN). The chemical is associated with a number of explosions at chemical plants in recent years. The action follows President Obama’s Executive Order (EO), issued last month, aimed at improving chemical facility safety and security.

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The big idea—information can help prevent such catastrophes
OSHA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) have issued a chemical advisory that provides information on the hazards of storing, handling, and managing AN. It can be downloaded at http://www.epa.gov/emergencies/docs/chem/AN_advisory.pdf.

The document targets facility owners and operators, emergency planners, and first responders. It shares lessons learned from incidents, including a deadly explosion in April at a Texas fertilizer plant.

The incident, which killed 14 people, raised questions about oversight and regulation of chemicals, including AN, a solid that can be used as a fertilizer. When it comes in contact with a fuel source and conditions such as heat, it can pose an explosion hazard.

Investigators concluded that the fertilizer plant had not complied with applicable regulations, including a requirement to contact the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about chemicals stored at the site.

The purpose of the EO is increased coordination and data sharing among governmental agencies. It specifically targets AN for improvements in safety regulations. Lack of coordination was cited in the Texas explosion as a reason that hazardous conditions slipped under the radar of enforcement agencies.

Currently, AN is regulated by a variety of state and federal agencies, including OSHA and the DHS.

“Ammonium nitrate can be very dangerous, and it’s imperative that employers, workers, and first responders all understand the hazards,” noted OSHA Chief Dr. David Michaels. “With this understanding, together they can control these hazards and save lives and limbs."

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