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Industrial Safety

Former US Chemical Safety Board member Kristen Kulinowski reflects on her term

She is ‘bullish’ on the board’s future despite history of turmoil

by Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN
June 21, 2020 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 98, ISSUE 24

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Credit: Courtesy of the US Chemical Safety Board

This spring, one of the longest-serving members of the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) in recent history resigned shortly before the end of her term. Kristen Kulinowski served on the board for nearly 5 years, during some of its most tumultuous times. For the last 2 years, she led the board. As a PhD chemist and nanotechnology and science policy expert, Kulinowski brought a science focus to the board, whose members are often drawn from other fields.

The board is a stand-alone independent body whose mission is to objectively investigate industrial chemical accidents. Like the US National Transportation Safety Board, the CSB has no regulatory authority and can only make recommendations. It is the only such body in the world focused on finding the root cause of chemical accidents that kill workers and destroy communities and businesses.

It is also no stranger to strife. Created in 1990, it was not funded until 1998 after state and federal regulators failed to conduct adequate and timely investigations of incidents. The board’s investigation findings frequently raise the ire of regulators, industrial companies, and a host of other bodies that are responsible for maintaining safe workplaces. Its only consistent supporters are workers and communities who have suffered through deadly mistakes.

Kulinowski experienced additional turmoil during her term as a board member. She was appointed to replace a member who resigned following a dispute with the CSB chair. That departure was just one of several management disasters the board faced in Kulinowski’s first year. The chair was forced to resign following a multiyear, hostile investigation by primarily Republican members of a congressional oversight committee. The board’s two top staff were removed and placed on administrative leave.

The board froze new investigations and slowly began to right itself. During Kulinowski’s tenure, it conducted several investigations and issued 17 reports. It continued production of its widely respected safety videos, which are based on its investigation reports and have a global impact on industrial chemical safety.

As Kulinowski leaves, however, the agency continues to face uncertainty. The CSB is supposed to have five members, who are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve for 5 years. As members’ terms have expired, President Donald J. Trump has replaced only one: newly-seated chair Katherine Lemos, now the board’s only member. Trump has also tried three times to defund the board, although Congress has sustained its funding. The lack of White House support has made it difficult for the CSB to hire and retain accident investigators—it currently has 7 investigators, 3 supervisors, and 11 open positions.

Jeff Johnson spoke with Kulinowski about her term as a CSB member and the board’s future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vitals

Term as Chemical Safety Board member: August 2015 to May 2020

Education: BS, chemistry, Canisius College, 1990; MS and PhD, chemistry, University of Rochester, 1995

Most significant investigation while at the CSB: West Fertilizer Co. explosion and fire in Texas

Left the CSB to become: Director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute, established by Congress to assess science and technology issues for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

Commute method: Bicycle

Book recommendation:You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most

Considering the CSB’s volatile history, why did you take the position?

I knew what I was getting myself into. I saw the board was struggling. But I wanted to be a part of a solution that would include support from industry, collegiality between board members, and trust between board and staff. In these areas we have shown tremendous improvement.

The CSB has few government or industry allies. Do you think it would provide stability if it were part of a larger, more powerful agency?

Possibly, but I see its independence as a necessary feature. When we do an investigation we have to work with the regulator and the regulations that cover these high-hazard facilities to find where there are gaps in those regulations. I think CSB oversight was contemplated by Congress and the creators of the CSB and independence was shown to be an important feature. When two federal regulatory agencies did a joint investigation before we received our first appropriation, it was largely panned. The CSB’s independence is held up in the US and internationally as a very powerful model for how to look across all the actors and all the relevant parties to understand an accident’s cause. I wouldn’t change that. It has made us a little more vulnerable as a stand-alone agency. But that independence turned out to be a strong reason for our continued survival as we were not just a program in some larger agency that could be folded into another program or reduced or eliminated altogether.

Unlike most CSB members, neither you nor Lemos, or for that matter former chair Vanessa Allen Sutherland, had direct chemical industry experience. You really had to rely on staff expertise. Is that a problem?

I think it is a strength. One of the hallmarks of our last board when we had four members was its diversity. We had people with long industry experience and members who came from a labor and environmental background and one with great management experience, and I brought a science perspective. It was a real highlight of my time at the board to interact with people who were viewing the same material through a slightly different lens. We were able to learn from each other based on our own experiences and what each brought to the board. I would love to see that kind of diversity repeated in the next board.

Every time there is a major incident, we demonstrate our value to the American public.

What do you wish you’d done differently?

Hire more investigators. It is generally hard to hire qualified people to bring into government. It took us a while to ­figure out how to break through the bureaucratic red tape. Also we did lose a couple of people because of the threat of elimination. It was a challenge to overcome. But the good news is the board is still here and being funded, and last year even got more money than the previous year. That was a strong signal that the agency has a future. The applications the board has been getting have been outstanding and the ones we brought on board in the last year are highly experienced. So I’m bullish on the future because the board has survived the potential elimination several years running and got an increase in budget. It is bringing on board new investigators and that success will just continue to accumulate.

The CSB is modeled on the National Transportation Safety Board, which also investigates accidents and has a budget 10 times the size of the CSB’s. Yet no one considers eliminating the NTSB. Why the difference?

The NTSB covers many different types of transportation accidents. Everybody flies on an airplane, takes a train, or drives down a highway, but not everybody goes to work at a chemical company or even knows somebody who works at a chemical company. Industrial accidents fail to capture the public imagination the same way a major airline crash does. However, the outpouring of support we received from stakeholders when we were on the chopping block made a real difference for us. It is sad to say, but every time there is a major incident, we demonstrate our value to the American public.

Can the CSB operate with one board member?

It is not clear. Those discussions are going on right now within the CSB to determine the authority of a single board member. It is putting in place mechanisms in which a single board member or even no board members will allow the CSB to continue to operate or at least keep the lights on. Stay tuned.

Jeff Johnson is a freelance science writer based in Washington, DC.

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