CSB should consider using other agencies' investigations, GAO suggests

The Government Accountability Office has concluded that the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) could investigate more accidents if it would use its statutory authority to solicit other entities' work in some cases.

The agency, which has operated since 1998, had a fiscal 2006 budget one-eighth the size of the National Transportation Safety Board, on which it was modeled, GAO said in an Aug. 22 report. Yet NTSB investigated 250 times as many accidents because it used other agencies' findings when it could not send investigators to an accident site, the congressional watchdog service said.

It suggested that CSB needs to deal with what GAO called an "investigative gap," the difference between the number of accidents investigated and the number triggering CSB's investigative responsibility.

In fiscal 2007, CSB was notified of 920 accidents, 35 of which involved at least one fatality, "and CSB investigated one of these," according to GAO. It said that officials said that the agency lacks the resources to investigate more than a small percentage of accidents which meet its statutory criteria.

Limits and pitfalls

In an Aug. 8 response, CSB Chairman John S. Bresland said that CSB would consider using other agencies' work but added there are limits and pitfalls. He said that the US Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration frequently investigate major accidents.

"However, they have few inspectors focused and specialized on chemical process safety, and these agencies typically do not prepare narrative reports on what happened and why," he said.

OSHA, EPA, state fire marshals, fire departments and police also have law enforcement and regulatory responsibilities (unlike CSB) which necessarily focus on rules violations instead of the overall adequacy of existing rules, standards and industry practices, Bresland continued. Such agencies are often reluctant to share the results of their ongoing investigations with CSB, he said.

Companies' investigations

Most companies experiencing significant chemical accidents involving death or injuries become involved in lengthy lawsuits and conduct investigations which legal privilege often protects, Bresland said. Even if CSB was able to obtain and rely on one as a primary source, it could undermine the agency's credibility, he indicated.

GAO also said in its report that CSB needs to improve its accident data, hire more investigators and open regional offices, address accountability and management problems, and have a permanent, independent inspector general.

The day before GAO released its report, CSB announced that it is recruiting new investigators to work out of a regional office it is opening in Denver. The team will be led by Don Holmstrom, who directed CSB's investigation of the 2005 fire and explosion at BP's Texas City refinery, the agency said.

"Establishing a presence in the western states potentially will allow CSB to recruit more effectively, to deploy investigators more quickly to accident sites, and to maintain important contacts with stakeholders throughout the country," Bresland explained.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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