White House Proposes to Eliminate Chemical Safety Board

Over eight years and 10,000-plus accidents, chemical and oil workers and their unions pressed Congress hard for an investigative board that would search relentlessly for the root causes of oil and chemical incidents. Their work paid off when Congress funded the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) on Nov. 1, 1997.

Now, the White House wants to defund it. Congress set up the CSB to investigate chemical accidents resulting in death, serious injury or substantial property damage. Its purpose was to determine the root cause(s) of incidents, and make recommendations for reducing the likelihood and consequences of accidental releases and for improving the safety of chemical production, handling and storage.

Two notable industrial accidents moved Congress to establish the CSB under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990: the Oct. 23, 1989 explosion at the Phillips Petroleum Chemical plant in Pasadena, Texas, that killed 23 workers and injured 314 others and the July 7, 1990 explosion at the Atlantic Richfield chemical plant in Channelview, Texas, that killed 17 and hurt five.

Determining What Went Wrong

“For those of us who work in the industry, findings from the CSB are a great learning tool,” said Barbara Hammett Turner on the USW Oil Workers Facebook page. “The CSB asks, ‘What went wrong? How do we prevent it from happening again?’ If you do not work in refining or any sort of chemical/ manufacturing, then I do not believe you understand what we go through every day to keep our plants in safe conditions. CSB does help and it does have value.”

For over 20 years the CSB has investigated hundreds of incidents of high consequence, and made a total of 804 recommendations, according to its website, www.csb.gov.

The chemical accidents investigated included the May 2017 Freedom Industries chemical release in Charleston, W. Va., that contaminated the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents; the 2014 toxic chemical release at DuPont’s LaPorte, Texas, facility that killed four workers; the 2013 West fertilizer plant explosion and fire in Texas that killed 15 people and injured 226, and the 2012 fatal hot work explosion at DuPont’s Buffalo, N.Y., plant that killed one contractor and seriously injured another.

Recommending Solutions

Despite having only recommendation powers, the CSB is influential. Industry, labor, government officials, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) often adopt the agency’s recommendations. Consequently, workers and the public are safer and the environment is cleaner.

Examples of the agency’s effectiveness include the ban of natural gas blows in Connecticut; an improved fire code in New York City, and increased public safety at oil and gas sites across the State of Mississippi.

Additionally, the CSB’s reviews of major incidents have led to industry standards on worker fatigue and greater reporting of hazardous chemicals to first responders--although Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt delayed the Obama-era rule that required companies that store large quantities of dangerous chemicals to make public the types and quantities of chemicals stored on site.
A CSB recommendation also led to a new industry practice: removing nonessential personnel from areas where there is a possibility of harm during a unit start-up or shutdown.

Saving Workers’ Lives

“Through its in-depth investigations, analysis and recommendations about chemical incidents, the CSB creates a safer workplace for our members so they can return home in the same condition they arrived to work,” said USW International Vice President Carol Landry, who heads the union’s chemical sector.

“Workers need an independent body like the CSB to investigate accidents, especially when some chemical companies look no further than blaming their employees when an incident happens,” she added.

The chemical and oil industries have not commented much on the defunding of the agency, and their trade organizations issued generic statements about working with Congress and the administration during the budget process.

USW Director Mike Wright of the Health, Safety and Environment Department told the media that the CSB “is one of the best bargains in Washington. If it has prevented even one accident, it has saved far more money than its budget over its entire history.”

The agency has an annual budget of about $12 million for conducting investigations—which can take six months to a year or more—travel to accident sites, salaries and other expenses. It has a staff of 48 employees and five board members.

Helping Communities Stay Safe

Investigators spend months interviewing workers, staff and management; reading company documents; examining the site of the incident and equipment, and undertaking other actions to search for the root cause or causes of accidents.

CSB investigators write preliminary and final reports, present their findings and recommendations at public meetings, and publish their work and safety videos on the Web and social media.

The agency’s investigations bring much publicity to incidents and keep them in the public eye for a long time through media stories and later through investigative news articles.

“The CSB contributes not only to the safety of workers, but also to the communities around these facilities. This agency’s far-reaching influence on safety affects many people. Defunding it would be a great disservice to many of our members as well as the communities where these processes are located,” Landry said.

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
Wayne Ranick at 412-562-2444

USW@WORK (USW magazine)
Editor Jim McKay

For industry specific inquiries,
Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

Mailing Address

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Communications Department
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Pittsburgh, PA 15222