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PSM and Petroleum Refineries: Lessons Learned (Part 1)

Although the PSM standard was promulgated by OSHA in 1992, it wasn’t until 2007 that OSHA began to systematically inspect petroleum refineries as part of its Petroleum Refinery Process Safety Management National Emphasis Program (NEP). Many safety managers at refineries around the country were surprised at how easily OSHA was able to use the PSM standard to issue dozens of high dollar value citations by simply issuing multiple citations for each subsection of the standard.

Ten years have taught us a lot. For one, many employers have learned that there can be a benefit to challenging OSHA’s interpretation of the PSM standard on grounds that the standard is a performance-oriented standard — not a prescriptive one — and that OSHA should not second guess the employers’ discretion in deciding how to comply. The second lesson — and the subject of this new series of posts — is that we now have a pretty good idea of what issues are most likely to result in citations and take steps to avoid them in the first place. OSHA has been pretty open about identifying the most frequently cited deficiencies, giving industry insight into what is highest priority in terms of making changes to existing programs and policies.

Let’s begin with Process Safety Information (PSI). The first requirement of the PSM standard is that employers must compile written PSI. One of the most common PSI citations is for failing to document recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices (RAGAGEP) for facility siting. While most refineries give considerable thought to the issue of facility siting today — especially since the BP accident of 2005 — they often fail to document their analyses and siting decisions. It is this lack of documentation that gets refineries in trouble. Similarly, refineries are often lax when it comes to documenting their compliance with RAGAGEP with respect to their relief systems. Refineries need to be able to document the standards that they are relying on, even if the refinery’s own engineers developed and implemented it. Refineries have also been surprised by OSHA inspectors who took the time to pore over dozens of Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams (“P&IDs”) and to issue a citation because one of the P&IDs was not up to date. This is what safety lawyers like to call “low hanging fruit” because they are easily preventable and easy to spot violations. In my next post, we will talk about the Process Hazard Analysis (“PHA”) requirement.

This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.