The CSB is an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents. Headquartered in Washington, DC, the agency's board members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
The CSB conducts root cause investigations of chemical accidents at fixed industrial facilities. Root causes are usually deficiencies in safety management systems, but can be any factor that would have prevented the accident if that factor had not occurred. Other accident causes often involve equipment failures, human errors, unforeseen chemical reactions or other hazards. The agency does not issue fines or citations, but does make recommendations to plants, regulatory agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), industry organizations, and labor groups. Congress designed the CSB to be non-regulatory and independent of other agencies so that its investigations might, where appropriate, review the effectiveness of regulations and regulatory enforcement.
The CSB investigative staff includes chemical and mechanical engineers, industrial safety experts, and other specialists with experience in the private and public sectors. Many investigators have years of chemical industry experience.
After a CSB team reaches a chemical incident site, investigators begin their work by conducting detailed interviews of witnesses such as plant employees, managers, and neighbors. Chemical samples and equipment obtained from accident sites are sent to independent laboratories for testing. Company safety records, inventories, and operating procedures are examined as investigators seek an understanding of the circumstances of the accident.
Over a course of several months, investigators sift through evidence, consult with Board members, and review regulations and industry practices before drafting key findings, root causes and recommendations. During the process, investigators may confer with plant managers, workers, labor groups, and other government authorities. The investigative process generally takes six to twelve months to complete, and a draft report is then submitted to the Board for consideration. Reports may be adopted through a written vote of the Board or in a formal public meeting near the incident site or in Washington, DC.
In addition to investigations of specific accidents, the Board is authorized to conduct investigations of more general chemical accident hazards, whether or not an accident has already occurred. In 2002, the Board's first hazard investigation on reactive chemicals reviewed more than 150 serious accidents involving uncontrolled chemical reactions in industry. This investigation led to new recommendations to OSHA and EPA for regulatory changes.
In 2003, the CSB launched investigations of three major industrial explosions involving combustible powders. These explosions - in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana - cost 14 lives and caused numerous injuries and substantial property losses. The Board responded by launching a nationwide study to determine the scope of the problem and recommend new safety measures for facilities that handle combustible powders. The CSB issued its final report at a public meeting in Washington, DC, on November 9, 2006, calling for a new OSHA regulatory standard designed to prevent combustible dust fires and explosions.
Both accident investigations and hazard investigations lead to new safety recommendations, which are the Board's principal tool for achieving positive change. Recommendations are issued to government agencies, companies, trade associations, labor unions, and other groups. Implementation of each safety recommendation is tracked and monitored by CSB staff. When recommended actions have been completed satisfactorily, the recommendation may be closed by a Board vote.
While some recommendations may be adopted immediately, others require extensive effort and advocacy to achieve implementation. Board members and staff work to promote safety actions based on CSB recommendations. In many cases, the lessons from CSB investigations are applicable to many organizations beyond the company investigated. Many CSB recommendations have been implemented in industry, leading to safer plants, workers, and communities.