CSB Chair Gives Good Vibes

Nov. 16, 2015
New head sends strong signals about reinvigorating the Chemical Safety Board

Vanessa Sutherland, the new chairperson of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), gave a keynote talk at the Mary K. O’Connor Process Safety Center 18th Annual International Symposium in College Station, Texas, in late October. It was the first time that many process safety specialists, as well as myself, had a chance to meet her and learn her plans for the CSB, which had become dysfunctional (see: “Turmoil Takes a Toll on Chemical Safety Board”). She discussed some of the issues faced by the board, whose mandate is to investigate industrial chemical accidents. She heads a board whose three other current members also joined less than a year ago. Overall, the CSB has 40 employees and an annual budget of $11 million.


“I am going to be candid: I think the CSB is in a period of rebuilding,” Sutherland notes. “…Governance, management issues, and investigation completion are key.”

“With just two full months in my tenure, I am still gathering data to determine how to best set priorities to help us execute our mission well… I have spent the first 60 days as CSB Chairperson conducting a “Listening Tour” to meet with stakeholders…

“Over the next 30 days, I will complete my initial listening tour. But you know that engaging with stakeholders, outreach and continual learning never really ends.

“…I would truly appreciate hearing your concerns and comments about the CSB’s role and responsibilities in chemical accident investigations.”

Sutherland cites certain issues that require addressing. For instance, the CSB’s four-year strategic plan will expire in 2016. Each time a new plan has been issued, the CSB has redefined its mission and vision. She’s looking to develop a mission and vision that won’t change every four years.

She also is giving priority to tackling the CSB’s internal communications and morale issues. She has established weekly meetings with board members and her leadership team and a standing weekly session for any staff member to speak to her. In addition, she regularly is running “all hands” meetings.

She hopes to get the six investigations now underway completed in a timely manner; she believes four likely will be finished during early 2016.

Sutherland appreciates the high regard that process safety specialists and operating companies hold for the CSB’s online safety video program. More than 55 such videos now appear on YouTube; total views exceed 4 million. (These videos can serve as powerful training tools — see: “Stimulate a Sense of Vulnerability.”) She intends to expand the roster of such videos but has broader plans, too.

“I want to elevate the visibility and variety of the board products through increased communications with our stakeholders.” For instance, she notes the CSB has amassed a lot of general information, e.g., on hot work, that should be shared. In addition, Sutherland wants to add to the “most wanted” list of topics the CSB should work on. One example she cites is combustible dusts. She’s also looking for other ways to communicate, such as via shorter, easily understood leave-behinds.

My feeling, which echoes the consensus of those I spoke to at the symposium, is she seems genuinely committed to making the CSB not only more effective but also more open and inclusive.

After President Obama nominated her for the position in March, I did lament he didn’t turn to a technologist with deep chemical industry and process safety experience (“Chemical Safety Board Gets New Leader”). However, the CSB most needs someone enthused about the importance of its role and with the managerial skills to tackle its personnel problems and the mindset to encourage better dialogue with industry and other stakeholders. Sutherland appears a good choice. Perhaps that’s why the Senate approved her appointment in early August, which is pretty fast by current Washington standards.

MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can email him at [email protected]

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