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Control Report with Jim Montague: Maybe don't save the CSB

April 30, 2021
Videos and reports are fine, but they need to be backed up by some louder advocacy

Just about three and a half years ago, I wrote about a presentation by Manuel "Manny" Ehrlich, then-board member of the U.S. Chemical Hazard Investigation Board. He explained how then-U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman was convinced to add $2 million to CSB's budget over six years to help it investigate other root causes of the fire, explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon platform in April 2010, and how its funding was later removed from Congress' 2018 budget.

In "Save the CSB!," Control, Nov. '17, I stated how much I appreciated CSB's computer-animated videos illustrating the causes of hundreds of process safety accidents, as well as its reports and safety recommendations about how to avoid similar events, and that I couldn't think of a more useful and valuable service to the people working in the process industries.

Sadly, I've had to rethink my longtime support for the CSB despite all the positive work it's done in the past and continues to do. I've made repeated requests over the years to interview CSB's experts and leaders, but lately their responses range from a voicemail box that's full and not accepting messages to repeated promises from its managers to make its experts available for interviews that never happen. They did relay an existing report about MGPI Processing's above-and-beyond corrective actions following an October 2016 chemical release at its plant in Atchison, Kan. This is all good to know, but what I seek after and what's lacking from CSB is some advice on how other end users can do the same.

Of course, it can be argued accurately and successfully that I'm just a whiny journalist, who's upset that he can't get an interview that he wanted. It can also be argued that CSB and its staff have way more important work to do than explaining process safety to a media person who's not a practicing process industry professional.

Because I'm obviously not a process engineer, my only response is what if I was? My emails and cold calls could just as easily come from someone operating or managing a process application or facility, and maybe facing serious process safety issues. A person like that would no doubt have many questions about what to do to mitigate or reduce the severity and frequency of hazards at their site, and how to protect against them. There aren't many places to answer those questions, so what response would they get from the CSB? In light of my experience, I'd have to say who knows? Maybe they'd run into the same voicemail box that wasn't accepting messages.

My point is that, while all of CSB's investigations, reports, videos and recommendations are valuable, simply producing and putting them out there may not be enough. What could CSB do beyond its usual activities to prevent safety incidents from happening in the first place, so it wouldn't have to perform as many investigations, produce as many videos, and make as many recommendations in the future? I'm aware it's likely already achieved this for some end users and organizations, and that many potential incidents may have been prevented by its efforts and content. So how about proving it?
I know it's difficult to account for or add up the value and benefits that result from accidents avoided or cybersecurity breaches prevented, but I'm sure that intelligent professionals could make it happen. I know that insurers who are increasingly interested in process safety and security do it all the time. This could be a very useful investigation for CSB to conduct, and its results might support future budget requests.

I know it's counterintuitive and almost certainly won't be a popular argument, but if all CSB does is put out pretty post mortem pictures and recommendations after accidents and tragedies happen, and doesn't actively advocate for changes to stop them, then maybe it's actually a distraction and part of the problem. Again, I'd love to be proven wrong, so please do it. Thanks.

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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