Keep the CSB! Get OSHA and the EPA out of incident investigations.

The Chemical Safety Board (CSB) was established in 1998 to investigate industrial accidents, similar to the National Transportation Safety Board that investigates accidents involving airplanes and other vehicles. The annual budget of the CSB is $12MM and that supports about 45 full-time employees. It is an independent board that does not report to any other office/agency. The five-person Board is appointed by the President and approved by the Senate, so there is some political influence involved, however there are technical requirements for being on the Board so the positions are not able to be easily used for political favors.

When there is a major hazardous chemical accident, the CSB arrives on-scene to review what happened, what the causes were, how it was responded to both by the company and emergency responders, and if/how regulations were enforced.  They do a thorough investigation including looking at physical evidence and conducting numerous interviews. They are at the site as long as it takes to do a complete investigation, whereas many times regulating bodies or the insurance companies will be there initially and leave quickly, possibly without completely understanding everything that led up to the accident.

The CSB does not issue fines. They issue a report and recommendations for the plant, regulatory agencies, industry organizations, and labor groups to avoid the same issues in the future. Past investigations have led to changes in things like the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard for Material Data Sheets regarding combustible dust hazards, or the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) Acetylene Standard to remove outdated references and get it in line with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). These changes have led to safer plants, workers, and communities.

The chemical industry wants to operate safely because it is good for the bottom line. Operating safely means less down-time and fewer accidents, involving both personnel and processes. It saves money from reduced insurance policies, reduced personnel time away from work, and reduced material costs for replacement of damaged property. It increases revenue by increasing through-put and allowing for reduced emergency coverage.

This small organization is able to make a big impact on industry and society, so why would we get rid of it? The President’s proposed budget is a wish list and it is not final, however it is undermining the strong support base of workers he has built. Why would he want to remove an agency that causes the blue collar workers to have a safer work environment?

If the President is looking to save money in the government’s budget, there are redundancies that would be able to be taken out that would then strengthen the role of the CSB to make industry even safer and therefore increase profits for industry and reduce budget needs for the government. Instead of removing the CSB, remove the incident investigation portion from OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and allow the CSB to be responsible for all industrial accident investigations. To do this, funding to the CSB would need to increase to cover the large number of accidents that are currently not investigated by the CSB due to lack of manpower. However, if OSHA and the EPA were to eliminate their investigation portion, there would be extra money that could be put in the CSB budget and some left over to cover other initiatives in the country’s budget.

Think for a moment, if you have ever worked in an industrial facility, what is the first thing you think of or feeling you get when someone says, “OSHA is going to be here tomorrow.”? It isn’t good. Why? Because OSHA is coming on site to find something wrong. They always seem to be able to find one MOC that is incorrect, even if the other 9,999 were perfect. They are generally not coming to help you improve. They are arriving because there has been a complaint or because they have audit quotas to meet. The individual auditors may say they are there to help, however it seems to be common knowledge that when OSHA comes on site, you are left with fines to pay or to try to defend. Fines are one tool OSHA and the EPA have to ensure facilities are following the regulations and they are great deterrents to doing things incorrectly and potentially causing injury to the plant assets, personnel or the environment. The proposal is not to remove this function from OSHA and the EPA, those fines and audits need to stay in place. However, let’s remove their fines from incident investigations and allow the CSB to perform a thorough review. Removing the incident investigation from OSHA and the EPA would allow the investigations to be much more open as companies would not be trying to hide their mistakes due to fear of extreme fines.

Granted, no one wants the CSB to come on site, either, however it is already known that there is an issue if they show up. There is no reason for personnel, emergency responders, and neighbors to not cooperate. They all want to work together to make the facility safer and prevent the same or similar accidents from happening again. If you have never seen a CSB report summary and video, please go to their website, and watch one. They are spectacular and explain things in a way that you do not need a PhD to understand what happened. Let’s support them in creating these great accident accounts, so we do not lose our history and the lessons we need to learn from industrial accidents. Eventually, those of us who remember BP’s Texas City explosion will be gone, but the lessons learned from it do not have to be.

Let the CSB do its thing and then review the fineable offences, keeping in mind that the company has already paid a large fine with its internal assets and community reputation. The companies do need to be held accountable; however there are better methods that benefit the community and the industry as a whole, rather than lawyers.

Just as we have previously recommended that internal audits be used to improve your site rather than condemn your people, let’s use accidents as a time to learn and allow the entire industry to improve rather than punishing a company that already has to deal with the aftermath of a large accident. If you look at the history of fines from accidents, many of them end up getting thrown out anyway. Let’s keep them out of the courts in the first place and come up with alternate means of “punishment.” This does not suggest that if individuals are found to have been the cause of accidents, they do not need to be held accountable in a court of law. That is a separate issue. This is strictly dealing with the company as a whole.

Instead of paying fines, would it be more useful if companies, including the personnel most directly involved, were to develop a training course on what happened and how it might have been prevented? Then be made to travel to a number of similar sites and deliver the material. It is so much more impactful when someone with firsthand knowledge talks about an accident, rather than someone who got the knowledge second (or third) hand.

Or make the company work with environmental organizations to develop an environmental recovery program and supply the workers to implement it to show its commitment to the community and the environment. Any environmental impacts from the accidents need to be paid for by the company that caused them. It is also necessary to keep in mind that environmental effects may not all be felt immediately, so ongoing monitoring and tracking would be necessary.

Additionally, all operations and safety policies and procedures need to be reviewed at the site to adjust for the lessons learned from the accident. This review is a great time for OSHA/EPA to get involved and help the plant to make sure all regulations are being adhered to. Accidents generally do not happen if all procedures are safe and are followed, so there are going to be areas for improvement. Egregious violations of regulations need to be corrected, and fully documented.

There are many options for alternate ways of having the companies make retribution. Let’s be creative and allow accidents to be a time of change and growth in industry, rather than a time of finger pointing and punishments.

Removing investigations from OSHA and the EPA and strengthening the CSB would allow the regulatory agencies to focus on their strengths of regulation and preventing accidents and would allow the CSB to focus on its strength of investigations and would allow everyone to learn from others’ mistakes.

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