By Jim Montague, executive editor
Maybe I dont ask nicely enough. Goodness knows I forget my manners on a regular basis. Whatever the reason, Im 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 Labors 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 OSHAs 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, Id already called CSA twice, and secured a decent interview with their communications officer. The CSA expert that Id been referred to by NRTL called almost two weeks later. Too little, too lateagain. In fact, even the Valve Manufacturers Association (VMA) of America told me it doesnt do any research and didnt have anything to report on counterfeiting.
Boy, its sure lucky Im 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, Ive encountered literally thousands of unhelpful individuals. They seem to regard questions as affronts to their personal timeeven if one of their organizations 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 outsideespecially a (gasp!) requestcan seem like an attack. I often get the feeling that Ive 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, Id 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 dont think I could wish for a more complicit regulatory authority than one that cant be bothered with giving out information or answering questions.
So were there any exceptions to the U.S. governments 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 OSHAs process control-related divisions to be more responsive. Theres lots of time for fantasy when youre waiting for someone to answer the phone or leaving repeated voice mails.
So, whats my advice? Keep on askingpolitely. I usually call back repeatedly until it just becomes easier for some folks to give me the information Im seeking on behalf the community to whom Im reporting. Sure, Ive 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.