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Former CSB appointee Kristen M. Kulinowski makes the case for the swift appointment of additional members

by Kristen M. Kulinowski
March 14, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 9


This is a guest editorial by Kristen M. Kulinowski, director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute at the Institute for Defense Analyses. She is also a former member of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

In 2019 alarm bells were ringing across the US over the fate of a small federal agency charged with keeping communities safe. In a little over a year, the terms of the three remaining members of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) would end, leaving the agency without leadership unless new members were nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. By February 2020, I was the only one left, the president’s sole nominee was in confirmation limbo, and the agency’s survival was in doubt.

Finally, Katherine Lemos was confirmed as chair and board member. I left the agency shortly thereafter. While it’s good that there’s not a vacuum at the top of the board, the status quo of a single member is unsustainable.

The CSB is a nonregulatory agency that investigates chemical industry incidents. The goal of a CSB investigation is to elucidate all the facts, conditions, and circumstances of an incident and recommend changes needed to prevent a similar incident in the future. The CSB was designed to be a multimember governing body of experts appointed for their technical qualifications and demonstrated knowledge in diverse fields. In accordance with congressional mandate and the agency’s governance documents, board members approve investigation reports and recommendations, exercise fiscal oversight, and engage in public advocacy. While having the chair exercise all these authorities is defensible in a single-member board, it is a stopgap measure. Benefits of a multi­member board include the following:

Diversity of expertise. For more than 20 years, the CSB has conducted investigations of oil refineries, specialty chemical producers, paper mills, food product manufacturers, storage facilities, and the retail sector. CSB investigators not only painstakingly reconstruct technical failures such as undetected corrosion in a safety-critical system but also delve into factors such as management systems, training, and regulatory frameworks to uncover additional contributors. Just as CSB investigators benefit from working in teams where they can share knowledge and expertise, so too do board members. The CSB should have people who understand hazardous chemical facility operations, human factors, environmental science, regulations, and, yes, chemistry.

Oversight and good governance. Board members play an important role in agency oversight. They vote on reports and recommendations, operating budget, and certain expenditures. Without additional members, the chair acts as a quorum of one. In a healthy organizational culture, members can serve as strategic advisers and thought partners to the chair. Concurrence on major initiatives can also shield the chair and the agency from external criticism.

Broadened outreach. The CSB relies extensively on outreach and advocacy to publicize its findings and move third parties to implement its recommendations. Board members play an important role in these activities by expanding the reach of the agency’s published reports and videos. CSB stakeholders include industry trade associations, labor unions, community groups, government agencies, and professional societies among others. There are too many stakeholders and venues for information exchange for one person to engage meaningfully with them all. Distributing the outreach work gives the chair more time to focus on managing resources and people. This approach also plays to the strengths of individual members, who come to the board with networks that intersect with the agency’s stakeholders.

As the new US administration continues the gargantuan task of identifying, vetting, and nominating appointees for the nearly 1,250 positions that require Senate confirmation, it should not neglect the CSB. The agency, industries, and public would be best served by a complete board composed of individuals with diverse expertise, a commitment to public service, and a fervent desire to protect the most vulnerable from chemical disasters.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of her employer, C&EN, or ACS.


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