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Industrial Safety

Changes on tap at U.S. Chemical Safety Board

Chair departs, investigators leave, staff fears changing mission

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
July 16, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 29

Photo of a chemical plant.
Credit: Stringer/Reuters/Newscom
Four workers died from exposure to leaking methyl mercaptan at this DuPont plant in La Porte, Texas, in November 2014. CSB made interim recommendations in 2015 but still has not issued a final report.

After a briefing in late June, Vanessa Allen Sutherland formally ended her three-year stint as chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB). She described her term on the board as a “fix-it” role for the small independent government agency, which investigates chemically related industrial accidents.

She refused to say exactly why she cut short her five-year board term other than a need for more time for her family. However, rail transportation company Norfolk Southern announced on June 25 that Sutherland was joining the company as a vice president.

Sutherland took over board leadership in 2015 after a period when CSB was under attack by members of Congress and federal oversight agencies. U.S. President Barack Obama had called for the resignation of the board’s then leader, whom Sutherland replaced.

CSB stakeholders hoped that Sutherland’s arrival would calm the turbulence and let the agency refocus on what it does best—investigations that go beyond identifying degraded pipes or broken valves to reveal the deeper causes of incidents, such as a plant culture of ignoring safety alerts. As she departs, however, trouble may again be brewing.

Before Sutherland became chair, complaints reported to Congress by unnamed CSB staff alleged mismanagement and internal disruption. Criticism also centered on delayed accident investigation reports. When Sutherland arrived in 2015, six reports were incomplete, one of which stretched back six years.

In her first year, Sutherland emphasized clearing out these reports and declined to begin new investigations. CSB began new investigations again in 2016.

Now, as Sutherland departs, nine accident reports are in process—one of which occurred in 2014, before she took over the board. That accident at a DuPont site involved a chemical process mix-up in which methyl mercaptan was accidentally released, killing four workers. The incident led the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) in 2015 to label DuPont a severe violator of workplace safety regulations, a consequence that increased enforcement scrutiny and fines. However, CSB has yet to finalize its report.

Sutherland claimed that the nine outstanding reports are nearly complete—further along, she said, than were the six when she arrived. She added that an agency such as CSB will always have accident investigations in process.

Sutherland also embarked on a program more broadly to streamline investigations and issue more timely reports. Those changes are in flux, according to Kristen Kulinowski, the board member who took over as interim executive after Sutherland’s departure.

“I am comfortable in being able to step down at this time,” Sutherland said at the June briefing. CSB is in a place where new leadership can easily take the next step to make the board more efficient, innovative, and successful, she said.

Both Kulinowski and Sutherland emphasized the difficulty of running a small federal agency with merely 32 staff and an $11 million budget. The hiring and retaining of staff, long-term budgeting, and strategic planning have been extremely difficult for the board, which has never had sufficient funds to meet its investigative requirements under law. Federal reports have found the universe of accidents that qualify for CSB investigation can reach 150 or more a year, far beyond the half dozen CSB has resources to investigate.


Those preexisting challenges have been exacerbated under President Donald J. Trump, who has twice proposed eliminating CSB. In both cases, Congress stepped in to fund the agency and keep it alive, but the uncertainty has contributed to the agency’s instability, Sutherland and Kulinowski said. Additionally, the White House must nominate a new chair and other board members, and Trump is unlikely to do so. Of the three remaining board members, Manuel (Manny) Ehrlich’s and Rick Engler’s terms end in December 2019, and Kulinowski’s term ends in August 2020, just months before the next presidential election. By statute, CSB should have five board members.

The board also appears to be facing a revolt among some staff over declining staff numbers and fears that CSB is changing its mission. In interviews with C&EN and in an anonymous memo prepared by “six senior CSB investigators” and obtained by C&EN, CSB critics lodged a litany of complaints against board management. The critics allege reduced quality of accident investigations and reports, degrading working conditions, mismanagement, and waste.

In the anonymous memo, the senior investigators note that since Sutherland arrived three years ago, the number of accident investigators has declined through attrition and resignations from 20 to 12. Meanwhile, they continue, CSB hired five management specialists and human resources experts. The investigators also see a general trend toward briefer investigations and reports. They cite a growing focus by management on the immediate and direct cause of an accident, such as a broken pipe or gauge, rather than a detailed root-cause review that uncovers the overall conditions that led to an accident.

Such deeper investigations and reports have been CSB’s bread and butter. Many CSB investigations and reviews have revealed industry-wide poor practices, long-ignored company conditions, and regulatory shortcomings that led to an accident. Frequently, CSB investigators found that avoidable conditions that triggered deadly accidents had been discovered but not addressed by companies years before the accidents occurred. Investigators have also identified significant gaps in industry regulations. Companies or regulators are unlikely to point fingers at themselves, but uncovering such information lays the groundwork for safety improvements, according to several former and current CSB investigators.

In the memo and interviews, investigators say they believe expert peer and stakeholder review of draft reports will be curbed or eliminated. They are also concerned that a proposed shift to outsourcing report writing will reduce accuracy.

The staff also say tension between staff and management has been heightened by top managers recently brought in from other federal agencies. Those managers have devalued their work and have little experience in industrial accident investigations, staff say.

Kulinowski countered those allegations at the briefing and at a CSB business meeting in July, saying that hiring and replacing lost staff is her top priority. Her goal is to hire six new investigators over the next year, eventually bringing the total up to 22. Kulinowski also stressed that the focus on root-cause investigations will continue. But for reports to be relevant, timeliness must be improved, she said.

She added that she was unaware of staff complaints regarding top management. “I always have an open door,” she said, “and will listen to any staff complaint and take it from there.”

CSB is the only body worldwide dedicated solely to investigating large chemically related industrial accidents and publishing their causes. It makes recommendations without issuing fines or regulations. Other organizations examine industrial accidents, but they are regulators that issue fines or companies themselves. Neither are likely to reveal their own flaws.

CSB’s independence is a strength for the agency but also a problem that stretches back to its birth as part of 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act. CSB was not funded until 1998, after a series of New Jersey industrial accidents. The accidents were investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and OSHA, but their reviews were slow and inadequate, leading then-president Bill Clinton to provide $3 million for CSB’s first year.

Since then, CSB has endured criticism and threats of elimination—with support frequently coming only after an accident with severe consequences for a plant, its workers, and the surrounding community.

Jeff Johnson is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.


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