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Volume 86 Issue 35 | pp. 41-42
Issue Date: September 1, 2008

Bringing Life To Deadly Accidents

Chemical safety board finds a powerful, popular tool in animated videos of chemical plant accidents
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Homeland Security
Death In The Oilfield
Credit: CSB via YouTube.com
Public Worker Safety: Wastewater Plant Explosion
Credit: CSB via YouTube.com

A FEW DAYS BEFORE Christmas 2005, the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) decided to try something new and put a recently created accident video on its website. It was a six-minute, animated, three-dimensional video explaining the cause and impact of a deadly chemical plant accident at BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery, which took place earlier that year.

"There was no fanfare," says Daniel Horowitz, CSB director of congressional, public, and board affairs. "We didn't do anything at all to publicize the release." However by New Year's Day, the demand for the video had taken off, driven by what Horowitz calls a "viral distribution" of informal information sharing on the Internet.

The board website was receiving daily hits from tens of thousands of people who wanted to view the video online. "We realized we found a new and unique opportunity to disseminate our work using this kind of video medium," Horowitz says.

The video's release occurred about two months after CSB had held a public meeting in Texas laying out its preliminary findings and recommendations based on its investigation. The accident killed 15 workers, injured 170 others, and had garnered national and international attention as the most deadly U.S. industrial accident in more than a decade. CSB staff had prepared the brief video to help explain the accident for the board's public meeting in 2005. After that, staff were unsure what to do with the video product, and so, Horowitz explains, they put it up on their website.

"We got so much Web traffic that it was actually bringing our video server to its knees," Horowitz recalls. Since then, the video has been downloaded more than a half-million times, and the board has distributed thousands of copies on DVD in response to requests from industry, fire departments, labor unions, colleges, and safety agencies around the world, according to a recent internal assessment of the board's communications.

To date, CSB has produced 14 videos based on its chemical industry accident investigations. The videos explain what went wrong and how the injuries, deaths, and damage could have been avoided. They have been translated into French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Portuguese.

Altogether, CSB safety videos have been viewed more than 1 million times over the Internet, and more than 75,000 DVDs have been distributed. One-third of the DVD requests are from outside the U.S.

CSB is now releasing its videos on YouTube. One of its latest videos, "Death in the Oilfield," an explanation of a Mississippi oil-field accident that killed three workers, drew 20,000 hits in a week and was among the top 20 most viewed YouTube science and technology videos worldwide.

Producing a video takes a few months and costs $30,000 to $50,000, according to CSB. They result from collaborations among CSB investigators and contract animators and video editors. Horowitz stresses that videos are a surer way to get the results of its investigations out to the public. CSB investigations take a year or more and result in a complex but painstakingly accurate discussion of the accident, its causes, and how it could have been avoided. The BP accident report ran 341 pages.

"We came to realize there wasn't that big an audience for our written reports. They are a fundamental record of the investigation and the findings; however, they are not a good communications tool," Horowitz points out.

This is where the videos come in. They offer a haunting portrait as the disaster unfolds before the viewers' eyes. The heart of the video is the animated view of the actual chemical plant, its piping and layout, and its soon to be dead or injured workers as they go about the activities that actually happened that fateful day.

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Death Replayed
A frame from CSB's video, "Death in the Oilfield," shows workers precariously balancing a welder on top of an oil storage tank while hydrocarbons leak from an open pipe.
Credit: CSB
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Death Replayed
A frame from CSB's video, "Death in the Oilfield," shows workers precariously balancing a welder on top of an oil storage tank while hydrocarbons leak from an open pipe.
Credit: CSB

"Death in the Oilfield," for instance, begins with soft, expectant music, moves on to present CSB investigators dispassionately explaining what happened, and then shows an animation and schematic demonstration of the cause and impact of the accident. It returns to the investigators who present detailed recommendations and ties the presentation together with the opening score. While the video doesn't overdramatize the incident, it doesn't play down its impact or the resulting deaths, injuries, and damage; nor does it avoid pointing to who was at fault.

The presentation dovetails well with the board's role. CSB has no regulatory power. Its sole charge is to conduct detailed and bias-free chemical accident investigations and to find the truth behind chemically related industrial accidents.

Created by the 1990 Clean Air Act, CSB didn't get rolling until 1997. After a shaky start, its 47 chemical industrial accident investigations and recommendations have been called the "gold standard" in industrial accident prevention by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one of the board's advocates. Most board members have been retired chemical plant engineers and managers who know the industry well and are free of corporate restraints on their opinions.

Their recommendations have been accepted by many companies and state regulators. But the board also has faced opposition from some in industry and particularly the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which has refused to implement several of CSB's recommendations (C&EN, March 24, page 38).

The chemistry community clearly recognizes the value of CSB's work. Because of the quality of the board's reports and video animations, the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Health & Safety presented CSB with the Howard Fawcett Award for its contribution to safety at the ACS national meeting on Aug. 18. Division member Neal R. Langerman notes the award was in large part due to the innovative tools CSB has developed to communicate the results of its investigations.

Langerman, the founder of Advanced Chemical Safety Inc., a international safety consulting firm, says: "It is very clear that industry across the board is using CSB's work products—reports and videos, but particularly the videos—to improve safety at their plants. Increasingly, we are seeing the handprint of CSB on safety management across the chemical enterprise."

IN FACT, of C&EN's list of the top 50 U.S. chemical companies, 47 have requested the reports or videos, Horowitz says, and about one-third of Fortune 500 companies have sought CSB videos.

Many of these latter companies have never touched a chemical, Horowitz adds. "We have requests from retail companies, ship builders, automakers, and others, as well as traditional chemical and oil companies that are familiar with our work. The themes of many of our investigations—hazard analysis, safety training, management of change, investment of safety resources, understanding risk, the need to involve top leadership in safety decisions—transcend chemical processing."

Horowitz also says the National Aeronautics & Space Administration and nuclear-related companies have requested videos for training purposes, although these organizations face a completely different set of catastrophic risks.

Videos have been seen by company chief executive officers, boards of directors, engineers, and workers, as well as fire departments and emergency responders, according to CSB. Even legislators who would never study an accident have watched the videos.

Earlier this year, CSB distributed a video of a Florida water treatment facility accident to each member of the state Legislature in support of a bill to protect public employees, which recently became law.

 
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