In late 2023, the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) successfully eradicated a longstanding backlog of 17 unfinished accident reports, a persistent challenge for the organization. Among these incidents was one dating back seven years. Now, the CSB is committed to preventing a recurrence of the issues that contributed to the backlog, focusing on reshaping the agency to better fulfill its mission of uncovering the root causes of chemical accidents and proposing preventative changes.
Established by Congress in 1990 after lapses in timely accident reports from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the CSB is dedicated to investigating a wide spectrum of chemical-related accidents, with a primary emphasis on large industrial incidents. The agency issues comprehensive safety recommendations to companies, regulators, workers, and communities.
The recent backlog-clearing efforts involved 17 incidents encompassing various chemicals and chemical processes. Presently, the CSB is left with only two ongoing investigations, both initiated post the July 2022 management shift. With a current staff of 43, including 17 full-time investigators and three recently appointed chemical engineering interns, the CSB seeks to balance addressing new incidents with concluding past investigations.
Conversely, the CSB nearly froze new investigations over the past year and a half, despite 154 incidents meeting the criteria for investigation. These incidents resulted in 19 fatalities and property damage exceeding $1 million. The CSB was able to investigate only two of them during this period.
The CSB estimates that issuing future reports will require approximately 18 months, supplemented with periodic updates. As new investigations are launched, a vigilant eye will be kept on two major areas of concern: the impact of extreme weather events and the use of hydrofluoric acid (HF). The CSB continues to advocate for prioritized inspections, particularly in areas where HF is utilized as an alkylation catalyst.
Additionally, the CSB has begun analyzing data generated by its 3-year-old incident reporting rule, where companies are mandated to report and describe significant accidents at their facilities. Roughly 150 such incidents are reported annually.
It was discovered during the process of clearing the old accident reports that companies often possessed prior knowledge of conditions leading to accidents but neglected to address them. Investigations uncovered instances where accidents occurred despite employees raising concerns over safety conditions or companies conducting risk analyses that revealed flaws.
The discovery that incidents often occurred despite companies having prior knowledge of conditions leading to accidents underscores the need for a cultural shift within industries. It is not just about being informed but, more importantly, about taking decisive and timely corrective actions. The CSB’s advocacy for prioritized inspections, particularly in areas like the use of hydrofluoric acid, and its scrutiny of incident reporting data highlights the importance of anticipating and addressing potential risks before they escalate.
The narrative shifts from reactive to proactive, urging companies to view safety not as a mere regulatory requirement but as a collective responsibility toward their workforce, communities, and the environment. Companies that embrace this shift create a culture of accountability—one that acts swiftly upon identified issues, conducts thorough risk analyses, and ensures the effectiveness of corrective actions.
By learning from the past, industries can make proactive changes to avoid incidents, creating a safer and more resilient landscape for all. The path to eliminating major industrial catastrophic events begins with a commitment to accountability, transparency, and the pursuit of a safe workplace.