An industrial hygienist for a major manufacturer was asked about the 'Year 2000 problem,' the programming glitch that tricks many computers into misreading dates after 1999, potentially wreaking havoc with a host of business – and safety – functions. "That's a good question," he said. "I haven't really given it a lot of thought."

That's what worries OSHA chief Charles Jeffress. In recent months, Jeffress has been talking up 'Y2K' concerns in speeches around the country. "What happens when fire alarms don't sound? What happens when the automatic doors don't open or the valves malfunction? When there's a chemical spill and the MSDSs are locked in computer limbo?" he asked in a speech to The Conference Board this past May.

The problem lies with billions of lines of software that use only two digits to represent years. When the year 2000 rolls around, old programs that have not been updated could default to 1900, or freeze up. The Social Security Administration recognized the problem in 1989, and large corporations have had Y2K teams at work for several years now making sure 'mission-critical' computer systems such as payroll and inventory don't crash. But earlier this year The Times of London reported that only a third of more than 300 British manufacturing and process companies surveyed had set aside a budget to search for dangers posed by embedded software in their products, processes and machinery.

Red flags went up after Phillips Petroleum conducted a Y2K test on one of its oil and gas production platforms. Phillips experienced a shutdown in a hydrogen sulfide monitor system that essentially immobilized the platform, according to BusinessWeek. "Phillips has done us all a service by relating this experience. We must take advantage of it by searching for similar hidden computer chips in other safety systems," Jeffress said in his speech.

Jeffress isn't alone in his concern. Some computer experts raise the specter of the 1984 industrial catastrophe in Bhopal, India, where a malfunctioning valve triggered a toxic chemical release that killed an estimated 6,000 people. "We would be amazed if there is not a major chemical disaster somewhere caused by year 2000 problems with embedded software," said a multinational chemicals company responding to the British survey.

A U.S. petrochemical industry safety manager explains what could happen: "I could have a sphere of butadiene under pressure, monitored by an electrical system. When the year 2000 comes, the system could fail to 1900. There would be no history of pressure levels, so the system would regulate to zero pressure. Suddenly the pressure drops 30 pounds in the sphere, and I've got an auto-ignition fire."

Data dependent

Throughout the federal government, there are at least 7,336 mission-critical computer systems, including Medicare reimbursement software, air traffic control networks, and income tax checking programs, according to the White House. OSHA began investigating millennium bug issues in 1996, says Mike Lee, the agency's Y2K coordinator. Top priority has gone to three mission-critical systems: The Compliance Information System that compiles all instructions to field personnel, hazardous materials data sheets, and technical information for compliance officers; the agency's Property Management Information System; and the Integrated Management Information System that builds and maintains a national database of inspection and consultation activity.

These systems must run smoothly because so much of OSHA's compliance work is sensitive to dates. Citations must be issued within six months of an inspection, says Lee. That deadline could be missed for inspections conducted in late 1999, for example, if computer programs failed to recognize year 2000 dates. Field officers must respond to complaints within certain time periods, too. And tracking hazard abatement dates beyond 2000 that have been negotiated in settlements with employers could be disrupted.

But Lee says "we're doing very well" in steering clear of such problems. Software to track abatement activity was updated several years ago. By May 30th of this year, Lee's team had made all necessary program coding changes for the three systems. By June 30th, the revised software had been tested, and by September 30th the systems will be fully functioning as 'Y2K compliant.' OSHA is also using an outside contractor to verify that its repair work has been done correctly.

Lee has more on his mind than large mainframe databases, though. One of the five "millennium tiger teams" working on Y2K issues under his supervision is contacting all of the agency's hardware and software suppliers to certify that their products are programmed correctly. OSHA leases many of its field offices, and building owners are being required to ensure that essential services such as security systems, elevators, and ventilation systems will not shut down.

Lee is surprised by some of the places where millennium problems can pop up. Consider date-stamped videos taken by inspectors, or faxes sent from compliance officers to employers. "This information is admissible evidence in a case file, and the date better be accurate," he says. "Six months ago I thought, 'What does a fax machine have to do with anything?' Then I realized it uses a date."

To make sure compliance officers don't overlook the long reach of the little bug, OSHA's Y2K awareness team will compile a fact sheet of equipment and systems that might fail or be corrupted. Inspectors will also share this information with employers. "We want to get employers thinking about these issues," says awareness team leader Anne Cyr, chief of OSHA's Division of Communications Production. "It's not our role to fix problems, but to raise awareness."

OSHA hopes to have the Y2K fact sheets available this fall.

On the case

There are signs that safety and health professionals in industry are awakening to potential risks. Len Blatnica, product group manager for MSA's permanent monitoring instrumentation, says his company received few questions from the field until late this past winter. "Now it's an avalanche," he says, with customers having sent hundreds of forms to MSA in recent months asking if instruments are Y2K-ready. "Awareness is definitely escalating," he says.

MSA responds by sending customers a list of products that do or don't have Y2K limitations. In a few cases, software used to transfer data from gas detectors to a computer needs to be updated. "We're happy and clean with Y2K," says Blatnica.

For safety and health pros to feel the same way, Blatnica says instrument users should contact manufacturers. OSHA's Lee believes many companies have already begun testing for problems; if not, he says they "should have started yesterday."

Helpful hints

Here are some business processes relating to safety and health that could be affected if software programs scramble dates after the year 2000:

  • Scheduling and documenting medical exams, hearing tests, and other health screening
  • Scheduling and documenting training sessions
  • Scheduling instrument calibration
  • Gas monitoring histories fed into a database
  • PPE inventory management
  • Equipment with built-in maintenance and repair schedules
  • Processes controlled by time-stamped data from sensors
  • Fire alarm systems
  • Security surveillance and access systems
  • Auditing systems
  • Recordkeeping systems