Chemical Safety Board Dodges Trump’s Bullet Again

But is the agency selling its soul?

House Gives CSB Thumbs Up

West Fertilizer Chemical Safety Board

The House Interior and Environment Appropriations Committee has not only (again) defied President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the Chemical Safety Board, but the committee actually plans to add a million dollars to the agency’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget.  The Committee’s bill, released Monday, funds the CSB at $12 million, $1 million above the fiscal year 2018 level.  This is the second year in a row that Trump has proposed eliminating the CSB and the House has defied him.

Stranger Things

That’s the good news. But in other news-of-the-weird, the CSB and the Chlorine Institute (CI) have issued a joint statement that, while providing some good advice (e.g. don’t scrimp on preventive maintenance), reads like an advertisement for the Institute:

CI regularly updates its written guidance for chlorine producers and users by working with its member companies to determine best practices and contracting external scientific expertise. Additionally, members share best practices during in-person meetings throughout the year. Typically, industry colleagues review highly detailed, technical, and specific safety best practices and together improve their own safety performance and that of the entire chlor-alkali industry. Similarly, there are numerous other industry conferences, classes, and organizations focused on particular issues such as corrosion, non-destructive testing or rupture disc replacement frequency among other topics.

Now, we all love these Kumbaya moments and everything, but remember, the mission of the CSB is to “drive chemical safety change through independent investigation to protect poeple (sic) and the environment.” This is not to say that the CSB shouldn’t praise an organization for its consensus standards or corporate practices — and the CSB often does — but usually based on evidence resulting from an investigation about an incident that is addressed by that standard or practice.

Will this joint statement make future CSB investigations appear to be less independent and less objective in the wake of an incident that involves the use of Chlorine Institute standards?  The impact of Board investigations rests largely on the perceived objectivity of its recommendations and anything that detracts from that objectivity — or even the appearance of objectivity — will undermine the CSB’s effectiveness.

To my knowledge, this is the first time the CSB has issued this type of joint statement and it’s unclear whether the full Board even voted on it.

Agencies charged with conducting objective investigations need to maintain objectivity and the appearance of objectivity at all times.  Joint statements like this endorsing an organization’s practices that may in the future be subject to an investigation, do not generate confidence in the process.

Solidarity Forever

Meanwhile, in other news, CSB staff voted last month to organize a union with the American Federation of Government Employees. The vote was 10 to 5 out of a total of 19 eligible. The CSB has been plagued by internal issues over its entire lifetime and many employees are reportedly concerned about deskilling of their jobs, dumbing down of reports with a focus on the technical causes of an incident, rather than the root causes and recommendations related to the flawed regulatory and public policy environment that can more effectively address the ongoing serious industry incidents.  Close to one-third of CSB investigators left the agency in the last year mostly due to management issues, and no investigators have been hired to replace those that have left.  Perhaps the House budget bill will encourage the CSB to begin hiring again.

Bloomberg’s Occupational Safety and Health Reporter wrote about the CSB’s organizing issues last year.

 

Chemical Safety Board

3 Comments

  1. Jordan, this is an excellent post. The CSB is a sad case. I have no idea why anyone, other than industry, is supporting it. As you noted, the CSB has lost a third of its investigative staff in the past 5 months. When the former Chair lost fewer staff (and hired new staff to replace the departed staff), Congress was screaming — primarily because the staff that left disagreed with his non-industry embracing approach. The current Board is “partnering” with industry, and the staff who have left have been harassed for not accepting this new approach. Yet, no one at the USW says anything. The fact that the staff has formed a union says more than anything. The irony of this is that all the current members are Obama appointees. Nevertheless, they have sold out to industry and their Congressional enablers. That’s why they are getting more money.

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