New CSB Chair Discusses New Hires, Agency Challenges and OSHA

As the newly confirmed Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) chairman, John Bresland already has one item on his to-do list: expanding CSB’s resources in order to conduct more investigations.

In an interview with, Bresland, who was confirmed CSB chairman March 14, said he already is contemplating ways to increase the number of investigations the agency conducts, despite the limitations of a tight budget. CSB currently conducts six to eight investigations a year, but Bresland said he wants to change that to 12 a year.

“That [conducting more investigations] could be done by either doing shorter investigations, doing more case studies or hiring more people so that we can have more resources to do investigations,” he explained.

Part of the challenge, Bresland said, is ensuring that additional investigations remain as scientifically effective and accurate as the ones CSB currently conducts.

“I think the worst thing we can do is do a quick investigation and find out we've made a mistake or come to a wrong conclusion,” he said. “To do that, you have to make sure you have the right people on board, with the right expertise.”

For that reason, Bresland is considering wooing potential new hires who have considerable experience and a variety of backgrounds, such as chemical and process control engineering.

“We need to have the same kind of expertise on board at our operations so we have good understanding of what is going on,” he stated.

Bresland: Business Experience an Advantage

President George W. Bush nominated Bresland July 12 after former CSB Chairman Carolyn Merritt announced her departure. A former Honeywell executive and process safety consultant, Bresland also co-authored a book on dust explosions for the Center for Chemical Process Safety in 2002.

Bresland asserted that his experience in running companies from an operational as well as from a safety and health standpoint enables him to best determine which incidents the agency should focus on. He added that his experience in the industry gives him a firm understanding of how such operations are run, and he therefore is able to offer effective, yet practical, recommendations for safety improvements.

“I've been there, I've run chemical plants, and I've even been in some that have exploded,” Bresland said. “I understand what it is like when something bad happens at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

His experience also allows him to assess and reflect on high-profile CSB cases, such as the 2005 BP Texas City explosion, where 15 workers died and 180 others were injured. CSB dubbed the incident “one of the most catastrophic explosions in the past 15 years.”

In a March 2007 report detailing the results of the Texas City investigation, CSB concluded that BP management repeatedly ignored safety warnings. As a result, CSB made corporate- and refinery-level recommendations for the company.

“We've had some response from BP at the corporate level, but we would like to see a little more meat on the bone on that response, and there are issues that we are very interested in that we would like to see BP follow up on,” he said.

For example, he explained the report recommended that BP “appoint an additional non-executive member of the [BP] board of directors with specific professional expertise and experience in refinery operations and process safety.” This is a recommendation, Bresland said, corporate BP “has been pushing back on.”

“Our report is only as good as the follow-up to the recommendations that have come out,” he pointed out.

Bresland Receptive to OSHA Dialogue

In the same report, CSB also criticized OSHA, claiming the agency should share part of the blame for the Texas City blast. During a July 10 hearing, Merritt testified in front of the Transportation Safety, Infrastructure Security and Water Quality Subcommittee that the tragedy could have been averted had OSHA enforced its regulatory authority. She added that OSHA should strengthen its refinery enforcement and inspection programs.

Bresland expressed his intent to have a more effective dialogue with OSHA and develop a working relationship with the agency.

“I think it's important that two federal agencies like CSB and OSHA talk to each other,” he said. “I'm certainly going to outreach to people running OSHA and sit down and explain our position on BP and the [Imperial Sugar refinery] dust explosion.”

Bresland: CSB Has Come Long Way

When spoke with Merritt in July 2007, she said she hoped her successor “uses the work we have done in the past 5 years as a launching pad for more influence and bigger and better things.” (For more on's interview with Merritt, please read Merritt: New Statute Will Help CSB Grow and BP Tragedy Lesson for All Refineries and Companies, Merritt Says.

Bresland indicated he has no intention letting Merritt or the rest of the agency down. In addition to seeking more investigators, Bresland strives to update a 17-year-old statute to give CSB more authority on site and evidence preservation.

Overall, Bresland said he is proud of how far CSB has come. He says that while CSB once was relatively unknown, the agency now is considered the “preeminent chemical refinery accident investigation agency in the world.” Bresland credits the staff's hard work to bringing the agency to its current status, adding that he hopes his leadership will contribute to future successes at CSB.

“We're going to keep up the good work we have been doing and develop a stronger, highly motivated workforce here to continue the reputation that we have around the world,” he said. “We will build on what we have done in last five years and make it even better in the future.”

TAGS: Archive OSHA
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