The Chemical Safety Board helped investigate the April 2013 explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

The Chemical Safety Board helped investigate the April 2013 explosion of a fertilizer plant in West, Texas. Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

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New Chair of Troubled Chemical Safety Board Begins Listening Tour

Sutherland seeks "a better culture and experience" for a body some called toxic.

Two weeks into what some see as a rescue mission as chairman of the troubled Chemical Safety Board, Vanessa Sutherland had launched a listening tour with colleagues and outside stakeholders while bringing more key employees under her direct supervision.

“I’m a public citizen and taxpayer, too, so I‘ve read all the articles,” she told reporters Wednesday, alluding to the negative coverage about a toxic work culture, departure of staff and use of private email for official business. “But for the first 90-100 days, I’ll be focusing on a listening tour” with board colleagues, staff and outside stakeholders such as industry associations and safety advocates. Solidifying her role as chairman is “an opportunity to rebuild and create a better culture and experience at the board,” she said.

Only by gaining her own understanding of how the $11 million, 40-employee independent investigative body operates “will we be able to distill a set priorities and execute the mission as effectively as possible,” Sutherland said. She will seek to improve governance and collegiality and address pending accident cases so the board can “‘be a voice domestically and internationally in workplace safety.”

One early management move by Sutherland was to make the top seven CSB employees direct reports to her, rather than to the managing director, as under an earlier arrangement. The old set-up became controversial before that director, Daniel Horowitz, was placed on administrative leave this spring. Also put on leave was General Counsel Richard Loeb. An outside law firm retained by the board is investigating possible “misconduct,” and the leave for both officials has been extended to mid-September.

Their leave may be extended yet again, Sutherland acknowledged, but “It’s not fair to the CSB or the two employees for them to remain in limbo forever.”

Sutherland, an attorney who came over from the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, has a background as a corporate executive at Philip Morris/Altria Client Servicesand in legal roles at MCI/WorldCom. “I know information technology, and I like to say I think like an engineer,” she said. “I take physics courses for fun.”

Pronouncing herself impressed with the staff’s expertise and historical knowledge, Sutherland said she’ll seek a “more-aggressive outreach among board members and a more pro-active outreach to the communities affected by devastating accidents.”

Now that the board is finally up to four of its statutory five members, she sees an “opportunity to strengthen the board, and have more than one or two contributing views. We don’t all have a history together, so while we’re getting to know each other, there will be a divergence of opinion,” Sutherland said. “It’s the critical role of the chair to help people reach a resolution. But I hope people will be flexible and say why” they favor a stance. “If you take only take a firm position, that means that nothing gets out, which is worse than not doing the work,” she said. “When you don’t know someone, it’s easier to impart to them a nefarious intent.”

Tensions among CSB board members “have been a challenge for many years,” she said, “so board order needs to be revisited. But with four new members, we have an opportunity to seize the day and agree that some of the [governance rules] are out of date.”

Sutherland plans weekly board meetings on top of its official public business meetings, gatherings of top staff and regular all-hands meetings, she said. The agency is preparing to move later this month a few blocks from Washington’s K Street Northwest to 1750 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Many of the employees who “left in a huff” over the past few years are still in government, Sutherland noted. “We know some of them and would welcome them back as consultants or full-time employees.”