Issue Date: August 13, 2007
Chemical Safety Board Chief Retires
WHEN CAROLYN MERRITT took the helm of the Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) five years ago, it was do-or-die time for the board. Its future was riding on her ability to lead and to show that CSB could rise above its troubled past and fulfill its unique role as an independent federal investigator of the root causes of U.S. chemical accidents.
With Merritt's retirement on Aug. 2, she leaves the board healthier, more mature, and much more influential than she found it. And her chairmanship has brought to the board what its supporters had hoped for from its beginning—a track record of successful chemical accident investigations and recommendations that, if accepted, will change how chemicals are made and used in the U.S.
"I have nothing but the highest praise for her," says Glenn Erwin, United Steelworkers national health and safety coordinator. "She took a very small agency and did some wonderful things with it. If you talk about return for dollar invested, CSB is the best federal agency there is. With a little bitty budget and not a lot of people, it has been able to do so much for working people."
"She has been open and candid and, from our perspective, was quite productive," says Jack N. Gerard, head of the American Chemistry Council. "She pushed and encouraged us to go to new levels of performance."
Gerard emphasizes that Merritt worked well with ACC member companies to "fine-tune" their already established voluntary health and safety programs. Although Merritt recognized ACC's industrial safety efforts, Gerard acknowledges "varying shades" of differences on some issues between CSB and industry.
Erwin's and Gerard's views reflect a significant turnaround for the board since 2002, when Merritt joined the board as chairman. Two years previously, she had retired as senior vice president for environment, health, and safety at IMC Global, a chemicals conglomerate. She has spent 30 years in chemical process management.
MERRITT TOOK early retirement from IMC when she discovered she had breast cancer and began undergoing treatment. "You don't know how many years you have left, maybe 20 or maybe two," Merritt tells C&EN. "I thought I would enjoy myself and travel, garden, and do the things I really didn't have time to do in a corporate job. But when the phone call came for CSB, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. I was not going to let cancer define me. I was not going to be a victim.
"I just don't know how you can be presented with such an opportunity and not take it," she continues. "It meant being separated from my family and a lot of hard work and physical and mental exercise, but God gives us these opportunities, and it is up to us to accept them if they come."
The board had seen some tough times during its brief existence. CSB was created through provisions of the Clean Air Act of 1990, but neither Presidents George H. W. Bush nor Bill Clinton rushed to supply funds or appoint its five-member board.
Finally in November 1997, Clinton provided a few million dollars, and board members moved into rented office space, began to hire staff, and announced an ambitious schedule that they tried but failed to meet. For the next few years, CSB suffered from poor management, feuding board members, and inadequate funding and staffing.
The most obvious problem was an impasse between CSB Chairman Paul L. Hill and board members over Hill's refusal to share management authority. Matters reached a point that Hill quit attending board meetings, and the board turned to the Justice Department to resolve an internal dispute over authority.
Those early years almost killed the organization. Investigations were stalled, reports were never issued, Congress threatened to cut funding, and other federal agencies began investigating the board.
Hill resigned in 2000, and the other board members worked hard to put the organization back together and to live up to the expectations of an unusual mix of supporters—chemical companies, unions, members of Congress, federal and state officials, and health and safety experts (C&EN, Aug. 14, 2000, page 27).
The board's strength is its independence. It doesn't write or enforce regulations, and it issues no fines. On the other hand, it is not under the control of the President or Congress. Its role is to search for the true root cause of chemical accidents; its authority is the bully pulpit. The board's currency is its reputation, coupled with the power of its investigations and its recommendations.
The situation now is considerably improved. During Merritt's five years as chairman, the board has more than tripled productivity. From 1997 to 2002, it issued nine investigation reports, one safety study, and 82 safety recommendations. Today, it has issued 43 reports, six safety studies, and 460 safety recommendations. It also greatly increased its outreach by taking safety demonstrations and bulletins directly to companies and communities; it has produced a string of safety videos in several languages, based on its accident investigations; and it offers on its website a daily running account of chemical accidents.
Its budget, Merritt notes, has been pretty much flat since 2000 at about $9 million a year, as has its staff at about 40. It is barely one-tenth the size of the National Transportation Safety Board upon which it is modeled. CSB screens hundreds of accidents each year and selects eight to 10 of the most significant to investigate. Merritt says the board must leave another 10 or so important accidents uninvestigated because of funding shortfalls, a situation that pains her. It takes the board about a year to 18 months to complete an investigation, and it monitors company progress to see whether its recommendations are implemented.
The board, Merritt says, is gradually expanding its focus from incident investigations to an analysis of the systemic conditions that set the stage for an accident. "We've moved from what widget broke to much larger issues, such as identifying system changes that need to take place. I'm very proud of the agency for that," she says.
The board recommendations have also grown to much more than the concerns of a single company. In the case of the March 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery, the investigation and recommendations encompassed a global corporation and a huge industry. The accident also transformed the board.
Fifteen workers died and 180 were injured in the blast; it was the worst U.S. industrial accident since 1990. The board conducted a lengthy investigation and produced a scathing report, blaming BP for a culture of cost cutting, management acceptance of high-risk production methods, and an unwillingness to address specific process safety problems that the company was aware of for decades (C&EN, Nov. 13, 2006, page 31).
Merritt also blasted the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce regulations at the facility. Merritt particularly criticized OSHA, saying it had failed to conduct a comprehensive process safety inspection at the facility as well as at other refineries.
"BP's problems," Merritt stressed when issuing the report, "are not unique to one refinery, one division, or one corporation."
The board urged BP to create an independent panel to thoroughly examine its operations, which the company did, and Merritt took the problem to the nation through her appearance on "60 Minutes."
CSB pointed out that in 2004, BP was reporting its lowest injury rate in history, one-third the national average. The rate, however, was based on personal accidents. Meanwhile that same year, three workers had died at the Texas plant and, on average over the previous 30 years, a worker was killed in industrial accidents at the refinery every 16 months.
"What Merritt understood," Erwin says, "is that it is not slips, trips, and falls that kill people in the petrochemical industry; it is all about process safety in our industry. But the focus of a lot of industry safety work has been on personal and behavioral safety, not process safety. She got it, the board got it, and I hope through them industry gets it."
Erwin believes the accident would not have received the national attention it did without Merritt's pressure. "BP's accident would have been swept away by other headlines," he says.
Merritt believes publicity is a fundamental role for board members, whom she calls CSB's "marketing arm." While staff does the actual investigations, board members meet with industry groups, private companies, and others to discuss industrial safety, as well as holding public meetings in communities where accidents have occurred.
"The first year I came here, I think CSB did maybe 30 outreach presentations a year. Now we do at least 100. I am doing 80, myself," Merritt says.
The board has also gone more high-tech by producing some dozen videos, showing the results of accident investigations and recommendations through animated presentations. The videos are available as streaming content over the Internet, and CSB has also distributed some 30,000 safety DVDs. It has had 800,000 website hits on safety materials.
CSB's video of the BP accident was viewed more than 410,000 times during its first 14 months online and has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese. When it first went up, the BP video received 24,000 Web hits in a single day, according to CSB figures.
As Merritt left CSB, the board released its most ambitious video—a 20-minute presentation of four accident investigations involving out-of-control chemical reactions, long an important issue for Merritt and the board.
A board study found that more than half of some 167 major chemical industrial accidents over a 20-year period were caused by runaway reactions of chemicals that are not regulated by federal accident prevention statutes. The accidents caused 108 worker deaths. The study led to a board-organized national meeting where CSB recommended that OSHA and EPA expand their regulations to include reactive chemicals and mixtures. Neither agency did so.
Another board study examined industrial dust explosion and found some 281 explosions that had killed 119 workers. Again, the board urged OSHA to promulgate new regulations, which OSHA ignored.
"OUR RECOMMENDATIONS are not binding," Merritt notes. "There is a limited amount of things we can do. We often have board discussions about whether we should make recommendations to change regulations and programs, because we know nobody is going to do anything about it. My feeling is that our recommendations are based on our findings, and it is no more fair for us to not make recommendations to OSHA and EPA than it would be to not make recommendations to a company because we don't think they'll do it."
Merritt predicts CSB will begin to examine the connection between accidents and worker fatigue, as well as communication problems between contractors and regular employees, which have led to accidents. She also says the board is starting to examine the environmental impact of accidents.
At a Senate hearing during her last month at the board, Merritt urged Congress to give the board power to preserve accident evidence and to obtain OSHA and EPA records when investigating an accident. Another area she would like to see improved concerns the basic collection of accident data. Although a half-dozen federal agencies collect bits and pieces of industrial accident data, the material is so inconsistent that no one really knows the number of significant U.S. chemical accidents. For instance, while CSB's reactive chemical accident study turned up 167 significant accidents, Merritt says, some 14,000 similar incidents were found, but most were dropped from the study due to data shortcomings.
Reflecting back, Merritt says: "BP was a symbol of a national problem. There are more BPs out there. There still remain companies that just don't get it. If corporate boards worried as much about the safety of their people as they do about tracking their money, there would be a lot less injuries and accidents.
"These five years have really flown by," she adds. "This has been the most fun I've had. But I've really worked hard. My husband has stayed in Chicago, and I do have a private life. I really am looking forward to reacquainting myself with my husband and children."
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