When looking back at the past 5 years as chairman of the independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, Merritt, in an exclusive interview with OccupationalHazards.com, said she only can see the agency taking positive steps forward as she feels CSB has had many more successes than failures despite having few resources.
“[CSB] is poised to do many more creative and important things,” Merritt said. “The agency has grown from one of little influence 5 years ago to international and national influence today, and for that I am very proud.”
On July 12, the White House officially announced that President George W. Bush had nominated John Bresland to head the agency for the next 5 years. Merritt didn't comment on the nomination of Bresland, who has many years of experience working in chemical process safety and who also is a CSB board member. In a statement released on July 11, Merritt said she was “happy that the president is advancing the process of succession at the board.”
Limited Workforce Restrict Safety Study Capabilities
Despite becoming a high-performing work team in that past 5 years, a tight budget and a 17-year-old statute has limited the agency in many ways, according to Merritt. In order to become a more effective agency, the agency needs resources to expand its outreach efforts to employers and open offices in cities across the country. These moves would allow the the agency to conduct safety studies to investigate potential hazards, in addition to the accident case studies CSB already conducts.
Currently, CSB has 35 investigators and only is able to conduct six to eight investigations a year, said Merritt. With an additional team of five investigators, the agency could conduct as many as 10 investigations a year as well as produce pertinent safety studies.
“I think the agency needs to grow a bit and we certainly are resource-limited to be able to do that,” Merritt said.
As a result, CSB hasn't been able to explore and focus on important aspects of investigations, such as the environmental impact of chemical incidents. Merritt asserted that many of chemical incidents investigated by CSB start with the release of a flammable vapor or a toxic chemical, which is the root of environmental compliance.
“Every event generally begins with a loss of containment of some sort,” Merritt said. “Our main focus has been primarily the safety element, but a lot could be done to help companies and also help regulatory agencies understand where there may be gaps that we might be able to address to prevent some of these incidents from occurring at all.”
CSB Role Sometimes Misunderstood
However, Merritt emphasized that one of the more important areas where CSB needs to have more authority is in site and evidence preservation. When testifying at a Senate hearing that called for tougher enforcement of refinery and chemical safety rules after a series of fatal incidents at several plants and refineries across the United States, Merritt explained CSB has been prevented from investigating at incident sites by other federal agencies as well as local enforcement agencies. This contributes to improper handling of evidence, often by the company where the investigation is taking place.
During the July 10 hearing, Merritt testified that EPA turned over some information CSB had requested immediately following the BP disaster in Texas City, Tex., but that EPA denied CSB access to information about safety processes and enforcement programs in place at the Texas City refinery prior to the explosion. This, according to Merritt, “impacted our ability to evaluate the program under RMP and how it was being implemented.” (For more information, read "Bill Would Boost CSB Budget Authority.")
One of the reasons why the agency may find itself excluded when taking part in an incident investigation, said Merritt, is that local agencies and many employers don't understand the role CSB plays in performing independent and cooperative investigations. She explained that companies often deny CSB access to the facility or to safety, maintenance and other records, and said giving the agency more authority on the scene would contribute to better preservation of evidence and more effective investigations.
“All we are asking for is to have the ability to make sure the site is preserved so that all parties, including the CSB, cooperates and make sure evidence is properly handled,” Merritt said.
Merritt said she hopes her testimony before Congress will contribute to a higher profile for the important work conducted by CSB, and that Congress will update the statute that spawned the agency and provide it with more muscle to accomplish its mission.
“I think Congress is aware of the effectiveness of the agency and the influence that is has right now,” said Merritt.
This is part one of a two-part series in which Merritt takes a look back at her 5-year tenure at CSB. In the next installment, she shares her personal thoughts about the BP tragedy, the steps that need to happen in order for the petrochemical industry to become safer and her plans for the future when she leaves CSB.