“You don’t need to say any special incantation or sacrifice a stray cat or something first.”  — Kevin Hearne

A common complaint about complying with OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard, 29 CFR 1910.119, is about the tremendous effort that goes into preparing all the required documentation and keeping it up to date. It is ironic, then, when auditors express concern about PSM compliance efforts being mere “pencil-whipping” exercises.  As though there is anything “mere” about the effort that goes into the documentation.

And secretly, or not so secretly, the people behind this effort wonder if all this documentation does anything to make their processes safer.

The Demand for Documentation

The PSM standard mentions “document” or “documentation” 15 times. It mentions “written” eight times. These words show up in twelve of the 14 elements of PSM:

(c) Employee participation

(d) Process safety information

(e) Process hazard analysis

(f) Operating procedures

(g) Training

(h) Contractors

(j) Mechanical integrity

(k) Hot work permit

(l) Management of change

(m) Incident investigation

(o) Compliance audits

(p) Trade secrets

Most of these not only require that documents be prepared, but also have retention requirements.

So what elements are missing from the list above? Neither (i) Pre-startup safety review nor (n) Emergency planning and response explicitly require written documentation. But can you imagine a PSSR that is not written? There is good reason that when it comes to OSHA, the common saying is “If it’s not documented, then it didn’t happen.”

As for Emergency Action Plans, the PSM standard refers to §1910.38, where emergency action plans are required for every employer, and requires them to be written plans for any employer with more than 10 employees.

Why So Much Documentation?

As a practical matter, that saying about “If it’s not documented, then it didn’t happen,” is usually motivation enough. When an inspector or an auditor shows up, they want to see evidence of compliance with the standard. It’s not enough to say, “Yeah, we do that.” Documentation is considered the minimum evidence necessary to show compliance. Without evidence of compliance, then those inspectors and auditors feel compelled to assume non-compliance.

Is there any safety benefit to all this documentation? After all, inspections and audits are about the past, which cannot be undone. Safety is about the future. How can that documentation help get to a safer future?

At its simplest, documentation improves safety in the future by acting as a reference to what the future holds. What do we need to do, and when? Process safety is complicated and written documentation serves to communicate between all the parties that have contributions to make. Documentation prompts us to do what needs doing and helps us avoid overlooking something we need to do.

Documentation also serves as reference to where we’ve been and what we’ve done. Shakespeare said, “What’s past is prologue.” What we’ve done lays the foundation for what is to come. Retained documentation serves as a reminder of what we’ve done. Trends from the past don’t have to be trajectories for the future, but they will be if we do not actively work to improve on the past.

What About Certification?

Not only does the PSM standard call for documentation, it also calls for certifications. One required certification is the annual certification that operating procedures are current and accurate. Another required certification is the certification of each compliance audit that it evaluates compliance with the provisions of the PSM standard. There is also a third opportunity for certification mentioned in the PSM standard that is no longer relevant: the option to certify that operators employed before the standard went into effect on May 26, 1992 are already competent to carry out their responsibilities, so don’t need initial training.

This requirement for certification is not unique to the PSM Standard. OSHA requires certifications in several regulations. §1910.146, Permit-required confined spaces; §1910.147, The control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout); §1910.120, Hazardous waste operations and emergency response; and §1910.178, Powered industrial trucks are just a few. On the other hand, most OSHA regulations do not require certifications.

What do certifications do? They don’t make anything safer. When procedures are current and accurate, they are current and accurate, whether they are certified or not. To certify is “to attest or confirm as certain in a formal statement, to state authoritatively.” Legally, it follows a certain form, along the lines of “I, [state your name], certify that [whatever it is that you are being asked to certify, for whatever purpose you are being asked to certify]” and then sometimes concludes with the weasel words, “to the best of my knowledge.” Certifications meet a legal obligation.

A certification is a legal incantation. Like all incantations and other magic spells, it is important to get the words right, or the magic doesn’t work. So, a certification is not an approval, a guarantee, a warranty, or an authorization. It is a simply, and solely, a statement that begins with the words, “I certify that…”

OSHA’s Expectations for Certifications

While OSHA frequently calls for certifications, it never stipulates the form they must take. The closest they come is the example they include in Form 300-A, which has a certification requirement. In Form 300-A, the certification statement, which must be signed by a “company executive” is “I certify that I have examined this document and that to the best of my knowledge the entries are true, accurate, and complete.” OSHA doesn’t require that their Form 300-A be used to summarize illnesses and injuries, but it does require that if a substitute form is used, that it contains this exact certification statement.

I cannot point to a letter of interpretation of exactly what a certification statement for PSM must look like, I’ve heard, however, of employers who have done the work they were supposed to do, but failed to certify it and were cited for that lapse.

Complete the Documentation and Certification

Keeping up with the documentation requirements of the PSM standard and other regulations that impact the chemical enterprise can be daunting. The requirement for certification can further complicate it, but it does not need to. It’s not as though stray cats must be sacrificed. The right statement and a signature are all it takes. A fine of up to $13,653 for missing a certification statement and signature on work that has already been done is just about the worst misallocation of limited safety resources I can imagine.