Former CSB Chairman Discusses Deepwater Horizon Investigation, Board Priorities

Sept. 14, 2010
John Bresland, former chairman and current board member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), spoke with EHS Today about the board’s investigation into the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, the board’s priorities, combustible dust regulation and more.

EHS Today reached Bresland in Atlanta on Sept. 13, where he was a featured speaker at the national conference of the Alliance of Hazardous Materials Professionals (AHMP).

“In the Chemical Safety Board, you never really know what to expect from one day to the next,” Bresland explained. “You’re a little bit like the fire department – the bell rings and all of a sudden you’re off doing another investigation. And you may not know anything about the technology, so there’s a lot to learn.”

Bresland left his post as chairman of CSB this year and will serve the remainder of his term through 2013 under the new chairman, Rafael Moure-Eraso, Ph.D.

“I don’t think our priorities are going to change. We’re going to be doing good investigations and making recommendations to prevent accidents from occurring,” Bresland said.

Deepwater Horizon Investigation

CSB announced in June that the board would initiate an investigation into the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion.

“Keep in mind our investigation focuses on what happened in the months, days, weeks and hours leading up to the actual explosion,” Bresland said. “We’re not involved at all in evaluating the spill cleanup. We think the most important part is why this happened in the first place, what caused it and what can be done to prevent it.”

According to Bresland, CSB is in the early stages of its investigation, is putting together a team and hiring outside experts. Bresland and another board member recently visited and toured a “sister rig” located near the Deepwater Horizon. BP also invited CSB members to a presentation of what they have found so far in their internal investigation. Bresland described BP’s presentation as “very enlightening” but stressed it would not impact CSB’s investigation.

“We are doing our own investigation, so the fact that BP made a presentation to us doesn’t necessarily influence our thinking, except it helps us get an understanding of the complexity of these operations,” Bresland said.

Bresland also told EHS Today that he hopes CSB receives more resources in the future and that the Deepwater Horizon investigation will not negatively affect the board’s other investigations.

“There are some investigations going on that I feel have a lot of significance for the industry and I would like to see us moving forward and completing [them],” Bresland said. In particular, he highlighted the November 2009 Silver Eagle Refinery explosion in Woods Cross, Utah, that caused off-site damage to homes in the area.

“I would like to see us continuing and completing that one because I personally went out and met some of the homeowners. We made a commitment that we would find out … what caused this terrible tragedy,” Bresland said.

Combustible Dust and Safety Culture

OSHA published an Advance Notice for Proposed Rulemaking for a combustible dust standard in October 2009 and recently held virtual stakeholder meetings on the issue. While Bresland applauds the progress toward a standard, he also pointed out that both the Bush and Obama administrations have made similar comments about standard creation – that it is a long, drawn-out, complicated process.

“I don’t want to speak for OSHA here, but I think they would like to see an easier way to [promulgate standards]. But it’s been this way for years and years and it’s hard to change,” he said. “They are moving forward on combustible dust, which for us is a big step forward.”

Bresland also commented on the aging work force and how it might impact the chemical industry. His concern is not possible limitations of aging workers, but rather how to transfer the knowledge of seasoned employees to the younger workers, who may be energetic and intelligent but lack experience.

“The issue really is the loss of expertise,” Bresland said. “When you’re dealing with hazardous materials, there’s not much opportunity for making mistakes. You can cause some serious, serious issues.”

Finally, Bresland’s message for companies and employers is this: Safety culture is important, and it starts at the top.

“We need leaders in the industry who have a strong safety culture,” he said. “When individual companies invite me to speak, that’s an indication they have a good safety culture and are concerned [about complacency]. The fact that they’re worried about it, to me, is a good sign that they’ve been working well for years and won’t let anything slip through the cracks.”

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