Pulling Teeth

Maybe the U.K. could re-colonize us, so we could get OSHA’s process control-related divisions to be more responsive.

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By Jim Montague, executive editor

Maybe I don’t ask nicely enough. Goodness knows I forget my manners on a regular basis. Whatever the reason, I’m now 0-2 this year when trying to get information and input from U.S. government agencies for articles on some fairly significant process control issues.

In my first attempt, I sought assistance and interviews in April on process safety from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. I made a few calls, but got no response. I finally got through to a guy from the investigation board, emailed some questions, but was told that no one there felt able to comment. I eventually did get an email from OSHA saying someone might be able to talk to me, but by then my story was long finished. Too little, too late.

In my second effort, I contacted the OSHA’s Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) program in October for data on counterfeit process control devices. Several more calls, and all I got was an excuse that one of the public relations staff had been sick, another that the office was understaffed and a suggestion that I call someone at the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). However, I’d already called CSA twice, and secured a decent interview with their communications officer. The CSA expert that I’d been referred to by NRTL called almost two weeks later. Too little, too late—again. In fact, even the Valve Manufacturers Association (VMA) of America told me it doesn’t do any research and didn’t have anything to report on counterfeiting.

Boy, it’s sure lucky I’m just a pesky editor seeking input for a story. If I were an engineer running, building or renovating a process application, I might still be without the guidance I needed, and well on my way to risking serious problems, downtime, damage or injury. Sure, I know most process operators have many safety and security protocols already in place and work closely with local, state and federal authorities to implement, maintain and improve those procedures. However, technologies are changing rapidly these days, expertise is being lost to retirement, some operators unwisely cut corners and a shutdown or fire may be only one or two unanswered questions away.

In my years as a reporter and editor, I’ve encountered literally thousands of unhelpful individuals. They seem to regard questions as affronts to their personal time—even if one of their organization’s main tasks is supposed to be helping the public implement certain rules and best practices.

Perhaps people get so insulated in their own organizational spheres and tribes that any communication from outside—especially a (gasp!) request—can seem like an attack. I often get the feeling that I’ve awakened a hibernating bear on the other end of the phone. I know the eternal nature of bureaucracies makes some knowledge scarce and nurtures some bad behaviors. However, a lack of institutional and political leadership can cement these bad habits in place.  

If I were a process engineer who needed help, I’d wonder what the heck my appointed officials and their elected leaders are doing with my tax dollars. Unfortunately, if I were an unethical operator, I don’t think I could wish for a more complicit regulatory authority than one that can’t be bothered with giving out information or answering questions. 

So were there any exceptions to the U.S. government’s unhelpful response? You bet. Despite our six-hour time zone difference, the British Valve and Actuator Association (BVAA) responded immediately, granted interviews, educated me about counterfeit process control devices, told me about their experiences and even offered to poll some members. How refreshing! My faith in trade organizations was renewed. It made me think we might want to invite the U.K. to re-colonize us, so we could at least get OSHA’s process control-related divisions to be more responsive. There’s lots of time for fantasy when you’re waiting for someone to answer the phone or leaving repeated voice mails. 

So, what’s my advice? Keep on asking—politely. I usually call back repeatedly until it just becomes easier for some folks to give me the information I’m seeking on behalf the community to whom I’m reporting. Sure, I’ve been completely stonewalled and stymied many times, but I usually find some avenue to reach what I need. Of course, it would no doubt help if more engineers and users added their voices to the chorus.

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