The Trump Administration issued its proposed fiscal year 2018 budget which, if adopted by Congress, would direct all federal spending beginning on Oct. 1, 2017. The budget, as proposed, would “zero” out funding for the Chemical Safety Board (CSB). As such, the proposal would effectively eliminate the CSB, consistent with the Administration’s priorities as reflected in its supplemental budget proposal issued earlier in 2017. That proposal, however, was not adopted by Congress, and the CSB received its budget authorization to continue operating at least through October of this year. The elimination of the CSB, however, could result in increased risk of accidental fires, explosions, and similar incidents across industry sectors, including within the food processing sector. It could be years before the full consequences of a decision to close the CSB—as opposed to reforming the agency—will be apparent.
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When Congress created the CSB, by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, it tasked the Board with investigating the cause or probable cause of chemical and industrial accidents. At the time it was created, the CSB was modeled on the already successful National Transportation Safety Board. Congress hoped that the Board’s investigations would lead to improvements in chemical process safety across industries, including the food processing industry (and related activities) via its root cause analysis of accidents and resulting recommendations. In addition to issuing incident-specific investigation reports, the CSB also issues safety bulletins that provide guidance to industry to prevent similar incidents across industrial sectors.
Elimination of the CSB would terminate its unique investigatory function into industrial incidents. This is particularly concerning because that function is unlikely to be replaced by other federal agencies or by the states. Most other federal regulatory agencies are not positioned to step into the CSB’s shoes because they are charged with enforcing the law. As a result, any investigation into a chemical incident is going to focus on penalties for regulatory violations as opposed to drawing conclusions to understand the incident and prevent similar incidents in the future. The cost of performing these investigations, including maintaining a core group of experienced technical staff, is unlikely to be picked up by any individual state. Such an investment is unlikely to be seen as cost effective at the state level because no individual state is likely to have enough incidents to justify the expense. Further, individual states may be concerned that highlighting industrial accidents via these types of investigations could deter the construction of future industrial facilities within their jurisdiction.
The majority of the incident investigations pursued by the CSB involve events resulting in deaths, off-site injuries, widespread property damage, substantial environmental contamination, and/or significant natural resource damages. Historically, events investigated by the CSB are often associated with petrochemical or chemical facilities. An example of a recent, high-profile investigation conducted by the CSB is the Freedom Industries chemical release in Charleston, W.V., which interrupted the water supply for hundreds of thousands of local residents.
Although not as common, the CSB also investigates incidents at food processing and related facilities. Most recently, for example, the CSB investigated the release of 32,000 pounds of anhydrous from a warehouse and distribution center in Theodore, Ala., that resulted in about 130 members of the public seeking emergency medical attention. That investigation identified the root cause of the release as “hydraulic shock.” As a result of the investigation, the CSB released a Safety Bulletin providing key lessons to prevent future hydraulic shock incidents at facilities with ammonia refrigeration systems. This guidance may reduce the risk of future ammonia releases within the food processing industry, which frequently use large ammonia refrigeration systems.
Lessons learned from CSB investigations—even when they do not involve incidents specifically arising at food processing facilities—can be highly relevant to food processing companies. As an example, in 2010, the CSB released a Safety Bulletin titled “Seven Key Lessons to Prevent Worker Deaths During Hot Work in and Around Tanks” that targeted a number of industrial sectors, specifically including food production. The Bulletin was based upon over 60 fatalities identified by the CSB over a 20-year period as a result of explosions and fires from hot work activities on tanks. The majority of these incidents did not occur at food production facilities, but the CSB distilled key lessons from the incidents that applied across industrial sectors and provided specific recommendations to decrease the risk for similar work in the future.