Glimmer of hope for beleaguered Chemical Safety Board

Cronyism, retaliation, and abuse of power are just a few of the many unsavory terms and themes on full display at last week’s congressional hearing about the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB). It was the second time in less than 10 months that CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, PhD and board members have been called before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee).

For me, and others in the worker health and safety community, it was disappointing and discouraging to watch the four-hour spectacle. Congress pays too little attention to the causes and toll of work-related injuries and illnesses. It’s a rare occasion when the head of a workplace safety agency is given the congressional stage. When it does, I want them talking about protecting workers’ lives and health, not about their pissing match with the Inspector General. [Was I the only person talking to my computer saying "sign the damn form"?]  At the Committee's June 2014 hearing, we heard allegations of retaliation against those with dissenting views, and the use of personal email for official business. Last week's hearing added more including new questionable steps at the CSB to elevate the chair’s power.

Others have written about the beleaguered agency‘s problems (here, here, here), and members of the Committee, both Republican and Democrat, were unanimous in their calls for the chairman to resign, retire, be fired, or step down. For all the dark clouds hanging over the CSB, a glimmer of hope pierced the tension filled hearing room. Rick Engler, who was sworn in on February 5 as the CSB's fourth board member, pledged to get the agency back on track. Among others, he said the reforms he'll be seeking should include:

  • “Hold frequent, publicized, public business meetings and votes and take other steps to ensure public transparency. Every public meeting agenda should include ample time for public statements and dialogue. I reject any notion that carrying out the people’s business by a public agency is merely theater.”
  • “Ensure that CSB Members and staff work together collegially, where all views are respected, even when there are disagreements. It is especially important to respect differing scientific viewpoints.”
  • Resolve the controversy over CSB governance including the Board's role---not just the chair's----in deciding budgets and major use of funds, deciding key contracts, and approving appointment of department heads.

As the hearing was wrapping up and ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) was preparing to offer his closing remarks, he gave Rick Engler the last word. Engler described what happened at the CSB in the lead-up to the congressional hearing:

"...which involved going over voluminous documents and involving an outside consultant to, frankly, spin what cannot be spun. I want to go on the record to point out that I said----and I think this is pretty close to a precise quote---'I refuse to participate in this process.'"

Engler went on:

"This agency has no credibility whatsoever to tell anyone outside the agency virtually anything around its internal practices. ...I am dedicated to the mission of the agency. I want to move forward. I hope to be back here before your committee and to work with the Inspector General, but based on whether we are accomplishing the mission of the agency, not whether we are taking steps that have been described today to interfere with the mission of the agency. I pledge to you that's why I am here, that's what I'm going to work for, and I look forward to coming back to this committee and to be accountable to all the relevant stakeholders and the Inspector General in the months ahead."

Congressman Cummings responded, "to hear that is refreshing."

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