If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Industrial Safety

Biden nominating 3 people to the US Chemical Safety Board

Sylvia Johnson, Steve Owens, and Jennifer Sass have strong chemical science backgrounds but lack industrial experience

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
April 30, 2021

Photo showing pipes, scaffolding, and debris at an industrial facility.
Credit: Courtesy of the US Chemical Safety Board
New members of the US Chemical Safety Board would oversee investigations of incidents such as a fatal explosion at Optima Chemical's Belle, West Virginia, facility in December.

President Joe Biden will nominate three new members to the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the White House announced April 28. The three have significant expertise in occupational health and environmental science but lack direct experience in chemical-related industries, unlike most previous CSB members.

Photo of Sylvia Johnson.
Credit: Courtesy of Sylvia Johnson
Sylvia Johnson

The nominees are Sylvia Johnson, an epidemiologist; Steve Owens, an attorney who focuses on environmental, safety, and health issues; and Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit organization.

Photo of Steve Owens.
Credit: Courtesy of Steve Owens
Steve Owens

The CSB is charged with investigating chemical-related accidents and making recommendations to companies, regulators, and others on how to avoid future accidents. To protect its objectivity, it has no regulatory authority.

Photo of Jennifer Sass.
Credit: Rebecca Greenfield for NRDC
Jennifer Sass

Although the board should have five members, former president Donald J. Trump let it dwindle to one—current chair Katherine Lemos. Trump also tried to defund the board, although Congress continued to provide money.

Although Biden’s nominees lack strong industrial experience, their chemical science backgrounds and experience in education and outreach were noted positively by several CSB watchers, who added that board members rely primarily on its technical staff of chemical engineers to conduct detailed accident investigations.

Johnson currently works with the National Education Association, a teacher’s union. Previously, she was the assistant legislative director for the United Auto Workers, where she worked in the UAW’s health and safety department, conducting work-related health studies and hazard assessments. She also investigated incidents involving chemical, biological, or physical exposures.

Owens is a former US Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator and managed regulatory programs on chemicals and pesticides under the Toxic Substances Control Act and other statutes. He directed the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and is a former member of the EPA’s Clean Air Act Advisory Committee and its Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee. He also led the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), a national association of state environmental agency directors.

Sass is a part-time faculty member at the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health and a board member of the US National Toxicology Program as well as a frequent congressional adviser on chemicals and toxicology.

Mike Wright, formerly a chief health and safety official with the United Steel Workers, applauded the appointments. “Although we don’t think of education as part of chemical process industries, CSB has done fine and necessary work on laboratory and classroom chemical safety all the way down to the grade school level, so Dr. Johnson’s work at the NEA is certainly relevant,” Wright says. “Dr. Sass has great expertise in toxic chemicals, and perhaps more important, she knows how the chemical industry operates, and especially how it interfaces with communities and with government.”

If the new members are confirmed by the Senate, they “will enable the CSB to increase its focus on toxic chemical exposures, as well as continue to investigate fires and explosions” says David Michaels, an environmental and occupational health professor at the George Washington University and former head of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has often been the subject of CSB investigations.

Former CSB member Kristen Kulinowski adds, “It’s a very positive sign for the agency that the president has nominated three new members early in his term. Their backgrounds and expertise will bring new perspectives to the work of this vital agency.”

However, the American Chemistry Council, a chemical industry trade association, is concerned. “Process safety experience is critical to an effective CSB,” the ACC says. “We are disappointed that the current slate of nominees lacks sufficient experience and familiarity with industrial process safety practices or chemical manufacturing operations—all of which are essential to fulfilling the Board’s congressionally-mandated safety mission.

“The CSB has the important job of conducting complex investigations of major accidents and making recommendations, which is why it must be managed by qualified board members. We urge the Administration to work with industry and other stakeholders on nominees with the requisite skills and experience to successfully carry out the CSB’s valuable work,” the ACC says.


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.