CSB Restructures Accident Data Program

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board plans to refocus and improve its chemical accident data program.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) plans to refocus and improve its chemical accident data program, in keeping with the Board''s recent five-year strategic plan.

"Better accident data will be helpful in targeting future prevention efforts," according to Board officials.

Board members voted unanimously to withdraw the agency''s 1999 preliminary accident data study, The 600K Report: Commercial Chemical Incidents in the United States 1987-1996.

The "600K" of the title referred to a calculated total of 600,000 chemical incidents reported to the federal government between 1987 and 1996.

The then-chairman of the CSB submitted The 600K Report as part of written testimony to a House of Representatives panel in February 1999.

However, the report had never been voted on by the full board, whose members must approve all CSB reports.

An internal staff review found serious flaws in the composite database that was developed by CSB staff and formed the basis of The 600K Report.

For example, the database contained casualty data for transportation accidents where the presence of hazardous materials was only coincidental.

At the same time, information on known serious chemical accidents, like a series of fatal refinery blasts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was absent from the report or incomplete, according to the staff review.

"The 600K Report was an ambitious attempt to get a complete snapshot of chemical accidents nationwide," said Irv Rosenthal, CSB board member. "Unfortunately the five existing federal accident databases that formed the basis of the report were not designed with this purpose in mind. These federal databases were created to serve specific statutory purposes, such as the initiation of emergency response activities. The failure of the ''600K'' data integration project only underscores the importance of a concerted effort to get high-quality accident data."

The composite database was assembled in 1999 by compiling 10-year records from five government sources. Preliminary screening was done in an effort to eliminate non-chemical events and duplicate records.

"One conclusion of The 600K Report -- that chemical accidents occur too often and cause unnecessary deaths, injuries and disruption -- is surely true," noted Rosenthal. "Without a better yardstick, however, it will prove difficult to direct resources to the areas of greatest need or measure progress in accident prevention. To improve safety systems we need comprehensive, industry- and chemical-specific accident statistics."

Laying out the Board''s future direction, Rosenthal said, "Over the coming months, we will be working closely with stakeholders and tapping our best expertise internally to arrive at meaningful accident data goals. Other federal agencies also have an important role to play, and we look forward to cooperating with them. We need to develop readily accessible, high-quality accident data without placing unnecessary or duplicative reporting requirements on industry. Ideally, data quality can improve while reporting mechanisms actually get simpler."

In the interim, CSB will include a new accident data directory page on the Board''s Web site, www.chemsafety.gov.

In 2001, CSB will convene a stakeholder roundtable to discuss proposals for improving chemical accident data.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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