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Workplace Safety

Hazardous materials pipeline maze creates complexities for federal governing agency

November 22, 2013 - Posted by Karen O'Hara

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Consequently, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) faces a number of challenges. It mission is broad in scope, and it has to demonstrate its effectiveness to elected officials, watchdog organizations and the general public.

In its 2013 budget overview, the PHMSA complains its work “often goes unnoticed” because it successfully prevents and contains incidents. It’s easy to relate to this position.

There is a growing body of research and evidence that incident management and other workplace health and safety interventions save lives and money across all industry sectors. However, many employers continue to question the value of their investment in preventing something bad from happening because it is so difficult to quantify.

As for the PHMSA, the stakes are high. The agency administers nationwide safety programs designed to protect the public and the environment from risks in the commercial transportation of hazardous materials by air, rail, vessel, highway and pipeline. Most of the nation’s pipeline infrastructure is owned by the private sector or local utilities; federal safety regulations are aimed at ensuring that infrastructure is sound.

The PHMSA reports that its 135 federal inspectors and 375 state partners regulate more than 3,100 operators who are responsible a maze of 2.6 million miles of pipelines, 129 liquefied natural gas facilities and 6,448 hazardous liquid breakout tanks. With this oversight, the agency says significant pipeline incidents have decreased by 12.5 percent since 2008.

Federal data also show hazardous materials transportation incidents resulting in death or major injury have been reduced by 4 percent every three years, while pipeline incidents with death or major injury have dropped by about 10 percent every three years over the past 25 years. In addition, since 2002, the risk of hazardous liquid pipeline spills with environmental consequences has declined by an average of 5 percent a year.

Meanwhile, hazardous materials transportation (all modes, including pipelines) accounts for an average of 28 deaths a year, or about one death out of every 11 million people in the U.S. Accordingly, the PHMSA notes in its 2012-2016 strategic plan that accidents in hazardous materials transportation are low-probability risks.

However, it also acknowledges “these accidents can be very high-consequence failures when they do occur, because they can involve lethal forces or toxic materials that can strike almost anywhere. Annual accident data do not necessarily reveal all the threats. And some groups – particularly workers – face higher risks than others.”

Ultimately, one fatality related to unsafe conditions is one too many.

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Whether your operation is upstream, midstream, downstream or integrated, UL Workplace Health and Safety can help increase efficiency and productivity, enhance management of compliance and surveillance programs and optimize case management and return-to-work programs.

Topics: workplace safety