Most safety professionals in the American chemical industry likely support the work of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board or Chemical Safety Board — CSB — as it calls itself. After all, the mission of the small, independent non-regulatory federal agency is to delve into what has caused major safety incidents at chemical plants. More than that, though, the CSB shares its findings not just with the affected operating company but also with the wider industrial community. Its reports have highlighted lessons learned that apply broadly and can help other chemical makers avoid similar incidents. In addition, the agency’s videos about accidents provide valuable and compelling resources for bolstering process safety. (For more on the role these videos can play, see “Stimulate a Sense of Vulnerability.")
However, despite the CSB’s high regard within industry, the agency is contending with ongoing challenges that, if not addressed, can undermine its existence, let alone its effectiveness.
Last year, the Trump Administration’s proposed 2018 budget eliminated funding for the CSB. As I declared then in “Save the U.S. Chemical Safety Board,” defunding the CSB is just plain stupid. Fortunately, Congress showed sense— by budgeting $11 million for the CSB, funding basically on par with that of 2017.
The same scenario played out again this year, with the President’s 2019 budget proposal allocating no money to the CSB but Congress providing funding.
Budget uncertainly is not the agency’s main challenge, though.
Vanessa Sutherland, who became the CSB’s chair in 2015, resigned as of June, with two years left in her term. She didn’t explain the reasons why. As an appointee of President Obama, she might have chafed at working in the current administration or, perhaps, she simply got fed up heading an agency with an uncertain future.
In late June, the CSB announced that Kristen Kulinowski, one of three current members of the agency’s board, will head the CSB on an interim basis. It’s up to the President to nominate a new chair. Given the Trump Administration’s aim to abolish the agency, the White House may decide not to nominate anyone. It hasn’t moved to fill the two current vacancies on the CSB’s board.
Meanwhile, in balloting completed in early May, 22 CSB employees voted to unionize. Reasons cited for the move included the threat of abolishing the CSB as well as potential changes to work practices and schedules.
Don Holmstrom, retired director of CSB’s Western Regional Office, stresses that internal issues rather than budget uncertainty pose the main challenges facing the agency. Morale among investigators is at an all-time low, he says. He hears complaints about lack of respect for investigators and even harassment.
Reflecting this low morale, the number of investigators has dropped by nearly half, to about a dozen now from 20 at the beginning of 2017, Holmstrom notes. So, it’s extremely challenging for the CSB to complete current investigations, let alone start new ones, he says. Conducting an investigation similar to the one following the BP Texas City disaster would be impossible because of workload, he warns.
One cause of consternation among investigators is the push for them to take a narrower view when looking into an incident, adds Holmstrom. They are being directed to focus on the immediate technical cause of the event and, unlike in the past, not to delve into underlying cultural and operational issues that could have played a part, he explains.
Despite the upheaval and uncertainty, I exhort industry and safety engineers to continue to steadfastly support the CSB. I also urge the agency’s leadership to abandon the narrower focus for investigations — and to take steps to rebuild trust with staff.
Today, CSB really means “Can’t Stop Believing.”