July 23, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 2Comment

[Updated 7/24/15 below]

I heard very troubling remarks yesterday from a member of the Chemical Safety Board. Mr. Manny Ehrlich said that he has a “fundamental philosophical disagreement” with the staff about making recommendations for new safety regulations. Mr. Ehrlich accepted a job and was confirmed by the Senate to make recommendations to prevent catastrophic chemical incidents. Now he tells us that he is taking an entire category of fixes off the table?

The Chemical Safety Board is modeled after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). I know I’d be concerned if I heard members of the NTSB say: “we are philosophically opposed to making regulatory recommendations to the FAA” (or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Federal Motor Safety Carrier Administration, for that matter.) The NTSB has the vitally important role of identifying regulatory gaps and other ways to prevent disasters. So does the CSB.

The CSB was holding a public meeting yesterday in which staff were providing updates on the status of particular investigations. The Board members (only two confirmed out of a possible five) also scheduled a vote on recommendations stemming from an investigation of an October 2009 explosion and fire at CAPECO in San Juan, Puerto Rico. A 107-acre gasoline vapor cloud ignited and destroyed 300 homes and businesses. Board member Ehrlich said:

“I believe these recommendations would be burdensome for industry, would not reflect the stated priorities of already overstretched regulatory agencies, and would do little to reduce the risk to the public… I also believe that given the difficulty of getting new federal regulations adopted, the CSB should only recommend such regulations when absolutely necessary.”

It’s not as though the CSB has been bombarding OSHA or EPA with regulatory recommendations. Of the 737 recommendations made over the years by the CSB, by my count, only 15 call on the agencies to revise or adopt new regulations. The vast majority are directed to the affected or offending firms, industry organizations, municipalities, and other non-governmental groups. The recommendations run the gamut from “communicate these findings to your membership,” to “revise your procedures,” or “conduct a study.” The word “regulation” is not common in the CSB’s recommendations.

I hope Mr. Ehrlich will reconsider his position. I think the CSB would be derelict in its duty if it failed to call attention to inadequate regulations. They should alert the public about regulatory deficiencies, let lawmakers know, and tell the agencies. That’s a CSB responsibility. That’s what we expect. (And when the agencies decline to act, reiterate your recommendations in future reports.) Assessing regulatory priorities, determining a regulation’s feasibility, weighing its burden on industry—that’s not the CSB’s job.

(Updated 7/24/15:  A TPH reader pointed me to a copy of Mr. Ehrlich’s statement which is now posted on the CSB website.)


2 thoughts on “Safety board member sneers at recommendations for improved safety regulations

  1. It probably seems pretty “burdensome” to have your house destroyed by a gas leak.
    Dude, the point of your job is to protect the public. That generally includes reducing the ways that their homes can be blown up!

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