Chemical Safety Board Gets Rebuke

Recent report points to failings and necessary remedial actions

By Mark Rosenzweig

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Companies in the chemical industry take safety very seriously. After all, the nature of many processes can make lapses dangerous, if not deadly. So, periodic review of operations is good practice — to identify weaknesses that remain or have developed and to determine ways to address them. For the same reasons, such an evaluation also makes sense for government bodies involved in safety. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in late August released a report on the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). CSB, which was created under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and began operating as an independent agency in 1998, is charged with investigating accidents, identifying their causes and recommending how to avoid future incidents.

GAO used a telling “subject line” when it submitted its findings to congressional committees: Chemical Safety Board: Improvements in Management and Oversight Are Needed. Given the role of CSB, the chemical industry certainly needs to be aware of the GAO assessment. The full report is available online at www.gao.gov/new.items/d08864r.pdf. Let me highlight some of the key points.

GAO bluntly says that CSB doesn’t investigate enough accidents: “In fiscal year 2007, we found that CSB received notifications of 920 chemical accidents; approximately 35 of these accidents included at least one fatality, and CSB investigated one of these... CSB officials said the agency lacks the resources to investigate more than a small percentage of the accidents… By not investigating all accidental releases that have a fatality, serious injury, substantial property damage, or the potential for a fatality, serious injury, or substantial property damage, CSB continues to fall short of its statutory mandate.”

GAO unfavorably compares the performance of CSB to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). NTSB has eight times the budget of CSB but investigates 250 times more accidents, notes GAO. It praises NTSB for conducting limited office-based investigations that rely on the work of other entities — GAO points out that, in contrast, CSB stopped doing this in 1999.

GAO also faults CSB on its data gathering and reporting. “…CSB relies primarily on the media, such as online newspapers and television, to learn about chemical accidents… We found that CSB lacks a long-term strategy to improve quality controls, and the data remain somewhat inaccurate and incomplete. The lack of data-reporting regulations and these data quality problems limit CSB’s ability to target its resources, identify trends and patterns in chemical accidents, and prevent future similar accidents.”

Staffing also is an issue, says GAO: “…We found that more employees left CSB in fiscal years 2006 and 2007 than were hired… three of five investigators who left were senior investigators with five to seven years of experience. Yet CSB hired mostly interns during the same two fiscal years… Moreover, we found that in fiscal year 2006, CSB reprogrammed compensation funds of $627,891 to other priorities, including producing safety videos and redesigning its Web site, and that in fiscal year 2007, CSB reprogrammed compensation funds of $407,383 to similar purchases.

“We found that CSB lacks a permanent senior executive to establish performance goals, hold program managers accountable for meeting those goals, and demonstrate improvement in the agency’s ability to meet its statutory mandate over time. Without a COO [Chief Operating Officer], the agency may be unable to ensure continuity of performance and accountability when board members and chairs leave the agency.”

GAO sums up: “The difficulties that CSB has experienced are largely the result of inadequate management accountability for addressing long-standing problems and for clearly identifying and attempting to meet CSB’s staff requirements to perform investigations of chemical accidents. While we recognize that CSB may not have sufficient resources to investigate every accident within its purview… we believe CSB is missing opportunities to investigate more accidents and possibly prevent fatalities, serious injuries, and substantial property damage in the future.”

GAO’s recommendations include for CSB to:
• consider more extensively using the work of other groups, such as government agencies, companies and contractors, to maximize the board’s limited resources;
• improve the quality of its accident-screening database by better controlling data entry and periodically sampling accident data to evaluate their consistency and completeness;
• consider reinstating the COO position;
• establish a comprehensive human capital program, with input from investigators, that includes specific objectives and performance measures to improve accountability for results;
• develop a plan to address the investigative gap and request the necessary resources from Congress; and
• publish a regulation to require facilities to report all chemical accidents.

GAO sent the report to CSB for comment and says that the board generally agreed with the first four points but took issue with the last two.

Safety professionals at chemical companies may differ in their opinion of CSB and the merits of the GAO criticisms and recommendations. However, I’m sure that I speak for all when I say that a more effective CSB clearly is in the best interest of our industry.
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