The CSB, a tiny agency has big gains in employee satisfaction scores

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has a short but somewhat turbulent history. One chairman was forced out for mismanagement. Another resigned e...

The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board has a short but somewhat turbulent history. One chairman was forced out for mismanagement. Another resigned early because the White House proposed getting rid of the board altogether. More recently, things have stabilized. In the latest Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey scores, engagement at the Chemical Safety Board rose by 29%. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin  got an update from the new chairman, Steve Owens.

Interview Transcript: 

Tom Temin And let’s begin just by maybe a quick review of what the Chemical Safety Board, the CSB, actually does.   

Steve Owens Well, that’s a great question. You know, the Chemical Safety Board actually the official name is a U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which is a mouthful, but it’s probably the most important agency that most people have never heard of in the federal government. But our mission is to investigate chemical accidents and hazards that result from the production, processing and handling of chemical substances at facilities. Those are because the Chemical Safety Board was created as part of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. Our mission is focused on what are called stationary sources, basically things that don’t move. So if it’s a refinery or production facility or in some cases even a pipeline, we have authority to investigate it. If it’s moving. Items such as the train derailed in Palestine, Ohio earlier this year, and we don’t have jurisdiction over that. That’s the NTSB. We also, in our statute and our regulations will focus on the specific types of incidents and more categorical in terms of whether there’s a fatality, a serious injury or substantial property damage. So we have to look at a variety of factors when we deploy to a scene to investigate something that has gone wrong.   

Tom Temin Sure. So maybe the closest parallel would be the National Transportation Safety Board that you kind of mobilize and go there when something happens because plants do blow up once in a while.   

Steve Owens They catch on fire, too. Yes, sometimes, You know, But yeah, the NTSB is a great analogy. And in fact, the CSB was modeled on the NTSB, what it was created back in 1990. Now, they’re a different entity. They’re much larger. They have ten times as many employees and ten times as much money as we do and a very, very, very broad jurisdiction. And we work very closely with them. But the way our relationship with the NTSB works is if they determine that they have jurisdiction over a matter, then we step back. But sometimes we will both go into an accident investigation, unsure of what the cause is or exactly who is supposed to be in charge. And we work that out as things move forward.   

Tom Temin All right. And you are classified by OPM in the FEVs scores and generally as a very small agency. How many people work there?   

Steve Owens Well, as of today, we have 41 employees. A couple of more are starting right at the end of calendar year 23. And then there’s a couple of more that we’ve made offers to who are accepted and are going through the onboarding process, background checks, things like that. So by early next year we’ll be up to around 45 or so. And our hope and goal is during this fiscal year, fiscal year 24, that by the end of the fiscal year, we’ll be up around, if not above 50 employees. It doesn’t sound like much compared to other agencies where I work, for example, like EPA, where I worked during the Obama administration. But for the CSB, that’s a big deal. When our previous chairperson resigned at the end of July of 2022, we had 30 employees at the time. So some people have left. The Chairperson left, a couple of her political appointees left. So we’ve had some departures, but we’ve hired a lot of people since that time. And the agency is really, as we like to say, we’re in the process of rebuilding and revitalizing. The agency really is beginning. The agency is really beginning to move forward in a very positive way.   

Tom Temin And there is an appointed board. But I imagine the bulk of the staff has some technical expertise in different areas of chemical safety and chemical processing behavior and chemical effects.   

Steve Owens Absolutely. The majority of the employees at the CSB right now, and as it will be going forward, are individuals who work in our Office of Investigations and recommendations. And many of them, in fact, almost all of them are chemical engineers. They have chemical engineering degrees, some undergraduate degrees, but some both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in chemical engineering. We have some attorneys on staff and our Office of General Counsel. We also have a number of administrative staff, mostly focused in the Washington, D.C. area. There are probably about a dozen or so as at this point administrative staff that we have. But again, a majority of the individuals who work at the CSB are chemical engineers or people with very significant technical skills because what they have to do is go out and look at a refinery or a chemical production facility that’s had an explosion or a fire or some other major catastrophe occur. And piecing it all together to figure out what went wrong.   

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Steve Owens. He’s chairman of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. And you personally have a history of managing environmental organizations, EPA and also in the state of Arizona. So the scores, the employee engagement, global satisfaction scores went up 28%, engagement score went up 29% in the most recent survey. What have you done there, do you think, to make people feel more engaged? What’s changed?   

Steve Owens Thank you for asking about that, Tom, because there’s something that we’re very proud of. When those results came out, when I became the, kind of a funny term, the interim executive, which was essentially the acting chair when our former chairperson then I was confirmed as the board chair in December of 2022. But morale at the agency was very low. People were fairly disheartened because of a lot of things, not the least of which you mentioned when the former president tried to abolish it a little. Well, let me give you something to think about. If you’re working at an agency, the president zeroes out your budget. But there were a lot of other things that were going on under the previous leadership at the agency. And so we’ve done a number of different things. I think from a global perspective, the most important thing is you treat employees with respect, you listen to them, you recognize that these are very talented and dedicated career employees, some of whom have been at the agency a long time. And so when Sylvia Johnson, who was the other board member who was confirmed at the time, I was in early 22 when I first came on the board. When we first joined the CSB, we spent some time doing kind of get to know your sessions, you know, who are our staff is scattered all across the country. We have some in D.C., but the majority of the staff at the CSB are not in D.C. they’re all across the United States. We even have a staff person in Alaska. So we did these virtual Get to Know You sessions, which were very, very, very important. Mostly talking to people about who they are, what their background is, what their families are. You know, the families are like rather, and what they care about. And then now after the change in leadership, we sort of did a go back and did a how you do it, you know, series of sessions with people just to see what was on their mind. And that was very helpful to board member Johnson and myself in that regard. And then we’ve got a new board member, Cathy Sandoval, who joined us in February of 2023. You know, she’s been very active in terms of communicating with the staff as well. But from a process point of view, what I think the most important stuff we did was sort of make clear what our priorities are for the agency to give some direction to this, to have set expectations and hold people accountable but then get out of their way. You know, I learned in the time that I’ve been doing these kinds of jobs. As you indicated, I was the director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality when Janet Napolitano was our governor. And then during the Obama administration, I was head of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. And even way before that, I started my career working for Al Gore. I’m originally from Tennessee, and I was on his staff in D.C. in both the House and Senate, but I was his chief of staff in the state of Tennessee. We had slightly under 20 staff scattered all across the state of Tennessee. So and this was back in the 1980s with all our offices when he was in the Senate. So essentially, we were all kind of working virtually at that point anyway, because I had to spend a lot of time on the telephone or getting in the car and driving to Memphis or Jackson, Tennessee, or Knoxville or Chattanooga or the Tri-Cities or wherever. They try to manage a staff that wasn’t all in one place. So I learned a lot about how to do things right and learned a lot about what not to do when you’re a manager through those positions. I’ve been very, very fortunate in my life in that regard.   

Tom Temin My guest is Steve Owens, chairman of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. And you were telling us some of the changes you’ve made to make employees more satisfied at work.   

Steve Owens The other thing is when I became the acting chairperson and then when we had the change in leadership, we did a number of things to get rid of a lot of the bureaucracy. I mean, it seemed sort of hard to talk about or unusual to talk about a very small agency without that many people having a large bureaucracy. But we certainly did. At that time, I had never seen so much bureaucracy in terms of making people’s jobs more difficult than they ought to be in terms of the way things had to be reported up, the way things had to be cleared, the number of people who had to sign off on things, including investigation reports and just the paperwork and.   

Tom Temin Paperwork is one thing, but also the sense that people have no discretion over their expertise, I think may be the fundamental factor there.   

Steve Owens Well, you kind of read my mind. That was the next thing I was going to mention was that while we were doing that, you know, you want to get rid of bureaucracy and stop looking over their shoulders and not micromanage them, which certainly what was going on when I came on the board from the Chairperson and the team that she had in place and many employees, as you just mentioned, Tom did not feel that they had the discretion or the authority to do the job the way that they thought they ought to be done. And it kind of goes to the point I said about just getting out of people’s way. You got to pay attention. But on the other hand, you have to assume these folks know what they’re doing. You know, since they had some time at the agency and they’ve got great backgrounds and we’re qualified in the first place, and that’s worked out pretty well for us. So far, we’ve seen that, you know, people are getting being very efficient at getting their jobs done. People are working more closely together in teams, certainly in ways differently from the way that they did before. And the proof is in the pudding. In addition to the view point survey results that you pointed to, Tom, we just completely cleared up the long standing backlog of investigation reports that had plagued this agency for many years. Again, when Sylvia Johnson and I came on the board, there was a backlog of 17 open investigations and reports that had not yet been issued, some dating all the way back to 2016. And as of December 26th, we just issued the 17th and final report in the backlog. And I think not only is that a good thing for the agency, but it’s a good thing for the employees themselves because they got it done. You know, they rolled up their sleeves. They knew it was going to be hard. They knew they were going to have to put some sweat equity into the project. But we were all in it together. And while I think there were some folks both inside and outside the agency who thought, yeah, I really will believe that when we see it getting rid of the backlog, we did it.   

Tom Temin Just a detailed question. You said the backlog was cleared as of the 26th of December. People didn’t have to work on Christmas Day to do that maybe was the 24th.   

Steve Owens So we gave them that day off. We released it on the 26th. They showed it was actually approved the prior week, but we released it on the 26th. It’s just in terms of the public awareness of it, it came out on the 26th.   

Tom Temin Final question. You like the job? Sounds like.   

Steve Owens Oh, gosh, yeah, it’s a great job. You know, you go through a process. I actually raise my hand and ask for this job. And I’ll be frank, I was told by the White House when, you know, I’m a presidential appointee going to be confirmed by the Senate and all that fine stuff. But I asked to be appointed to the Chemical Safety Board, didn’t ask to be chair, but that just kind of happened, you know. But I mean, to be frank, during the initial process, I was told by the presidential personnel office, you know, we don’t get too many people who actually volunteer to serve on the Chemical Safety Board, given all the issues at the board has had, you know, over the years and the challenges that it’s faced. But I had been aware of the agency for many years going all the way back to my days as the choir director because they investigated a site in Arizona while I was the director there. And of course, at EPA running the Chemical Safety Office, you sort of pay attention to the CSB. But I was also, to be frank, disheartened, to see all the things that the agency in particular the employees of the agency, were having to go through over the years, as you indicated it. Just start with the previous administration. It went back a number of years. And so to be able to work with the team that we have here and to be able to get done what we’ve been able to get done so far has really been a treat. And we’re all very excited because now that we’ve got the backlog completed, people feel much better about the agency feeling good about the jobs that they were doing. We’ve got a real opportunity to do some very important things in the year ahead.   

Tom Temin We are speaking with Steve Owens, chairman of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board. You know, and maybe the big lesson here is that in a very small agency, leadership has maybe a lot more leverage over the scores. I mean, when you take an agency like Homeland Security, a couple of hundred thousand employees, the leadership is so distant from the average workaday line employee that a lot of turmoil can happen. That doesn’t really seep down to that level. So their scores kind of bump along, up three points, down three points at a place like the CSB. You can go from basement to stellar because one person or two people, maybe the board can have a big effect when there’s only 40 people in effect voting each year.   

Steve Owens Well, you know, that’s a great point. I will tell you, you know what I’ve thought a lot about, because this is a different type of agency from the one that worked out before the Arizona EEQ. At Arizona, the EEQ, we had about 700 employees when I was a director there at EPA in the office. I was in charge of between 12 and 1300 employees. So it’s just a different experience. And that was another reason why I was very interested in joining the CSB, because it is small, because you get to know the people on much greater personal level. The upside is that you can spend time with them. You understand what’s going on more on a day to day basis. As you indicated, you can really if something is going wrong, you can help fix it very quickly. The downside is that because it’s so small, if one person’s having a bad day, you know, or is off his or her game, you know, it can have a much more impactful ripple effect on an agency like the CSB than it did at EPA or the Arizona the. So the other thing that we kind of go back to your very first question, but one of the other things that we really tried to do and maintain is keep people talking to each other. In this day and age where people all too readily fire off emails that maybe they shouldn’t. What we’ve said is, look, you know, pick up the phone if you’ve got a question or a concern or a problem or you just don’t understand something, rather than spending the time to write an email and then maybe send one that you shouldn’t. In addition to that, we really put a premium on getting people together. We reinstituted senior staff meetings, which are all the supervisory staff in the agency, but we’re doing them more frequently. We do them on a weekly basis. Now, we started I know they did them once in a while, but we really started regular monthly virtual all hands meetings because we have staff scattered all across the country. So we do that every month. And then we started in person all hands meetings on twice yearly basis to get the whole team together, or at least everybody who’s able to travel to come to an in-person meeting. And so far the reviews on that have been pretty good. Sometimes some people can’t make it, sometimes folks are busy. But and the whole point of that is for people to get to know each other better, to spend time talking to each other outside of a work of contact. But also if they’ve got things that they just want to figure out about what other people do in the agency, they had the opportunity to raise them on the calls, the virtual calls or video calls we have, or to address it face to face during our in-person meetings. You know, the bottom line on a lot of this and it sounds a little trite, but what I say to the people at the CSB is I see my job and I think I see everybody else’s job is to make everyone else’s job easier. You know, what is it that I can do on a daily basis that’s going to make them be able to get their jobs done in a way that takes the least amount of time and the least amount of stress, but also all the stuff that goes along that you have to put up with in an agency like ours, whether it’s, you know, the filling out the forms, you know, getting reimbursed for travel or, you know, things like that that we can make simpler and clearer to people and get it done more quickly so that you shouldn’t spend as much time spinning your wheels on a non productive activities.   

Tom Temin And you strike me as a guy that probably doesn’t throw typewriters or slam phones or swear out loud.   

Steve Owens Occasionally every dollar that I could get a little, but that’s what I usually put myself on mute. Oh, the calls. But yeah, well, you have to sort of just kind of roll with it from time to time and yeah, like anybody I can get kind of wound up from every now and then. But by and large, it’s a great group of people at the see as be some of the those that have been there a long time. So they have the benefit of the history that they can share with newer employees. Not so much younger, but newer employees. But I will tell you, Tom, that one of the things that I realized very early on is that there is an upside also to having so many newer employees at an agency because they weren’t around when all of that crazy stuff was going on a number of years ago and they came to the CSB, do their job. I there were several employees, and I’ll be frank, I was surprised to hear from them, but they said that working at the CSB was their dream job, that these were people who worked either in the petroleum industry or a chemical manufacturing facility or something like that. And they had watched the CSB over the years seeing the great work that it had done. And when the opportunity to apply for a position arose, they jumped on it. Now, one of the other challenges that the agency had historically that we’re still trying to figure out how dadgum long it takes to actually hire people, you know, it’s.   

Tom Temin Well that’s universal. 

Steve Owens It’s a lot of hoops, a lot of hoops just hire somebody at an agency like this. And so but we’re working to improve that process as well.  

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