WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Chemical makers must do more to prevent careless oversights that have led to a recent increase in fatal errors, the head of a key oversight panel said.
The $720 billion chemical industry makes the building blocks for plastics, electronics, furniture, clothing and dozens of other popular consumer products.
In the last 20 years, the chemical industry has become safer, Rafael Moure-Eraso, chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), told Reuters.
"But we still see very basic things happening, going wrong," he said. "There are errors in the bread-and-butter issues of health and safety."
The independent federal agency investigates deadly accidents at chemical and other industrial facilities, much as its sister organization, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), investigates train and airline crashes.
Its $11 million annual budget is only a tenth of the NTSB's and may be cut further. The relatively small budget means the CSB's 40 employees have to select which cases to investigate.
The CSB's reports, which often take years to complete, are nonbinding. But they are closely followed by industry insiders because they offer blunt assessments of what went wrong and how to prevent a repeat.
In the past year alone, two workers have died as a result of accidents at DuPont and one at Dow Chemical. The companies are among the largest U.S.-based chemical makers.
The CSB is also preparing its own report on what happened last year when Transocean Ltd's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, causing the BP Gulf oil spill.
"The CSB's recommendations do facilitate safety improvements," said Michael Walls of the American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group. "We think they've been a valuable resource."
Moure-Eraso, who was appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama last year, would like the chemical industry to focus more on so-called inherently safer technology.
The concept, which is controversial within the chemical industry, argues that if a safer chemical or process exists, it should be used.
Hydrogen fluoride, for instance, is a dangerous gaseous chemical that turns into corrosive hydrofluoric acid when it touches water.
It is used to make refrigerants, drugs, gasoline and semiconductors.
To make those and other products, hydrogen fluoride can be replaced by alkylation catalysts and other materials to yield the same end result, though not always at the same price.
"Either you're going to make policies that would avoid accidents, or the alternative is you are going to manage the accidents," Moure-Eraso said.
Often the CSB's recommendations are forgotten over time, but there have been several recent tangible successes.
Last year workers at Connecticut's Kleen Energy Systems used natural gas to clean internal piping. The move was risky, given that natural gas is combustible, but for years it had been standard industrial practice.
Six workers died when the pipe exploded.
Their deaths were all the more tragic because the CSB had investigated a nearly identical incident in 2009 at a North Carolina ConAgra Foods plant. After that incident, CSB recommended that compressed air, not natural gas, be used to clean pipes.
The resulting outrage in Connecticut led the state Legislature to pass a law this year to ban the practice.
"I consider that one of our bright successes," Moure-Eraso said, though he noted that federal regulators still haven't banned the practice nationwide.
Moure-Eraso dabbled briefly in the business of chemistry when, upon earning a master's degree in 1974, he joined Rohm & Haas, now owned by Dow Chemical.
He found a way to cut the price of a Rohm product by a fraction of a percent, an amount that when compounded thousands of times had the potential to save serious cash for the company.
His discovery netted him a letter of commendation from a senior executive, although it didn't mean much to Moure-Eraso at the time.
"I decided that I didn't want that to be my career," he said. "I wanted to do something that would let me give back."
He soon enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Cincinnati and embarked on a career in academia, culminating in a position at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell before joining the CSB.
Given his inherently confrontational relationship with chemical makers -- he shows up when things go wrong -- Moure-Eraso says the industry generally welcomes his presence.
"It's kind of surprising how well we are received, because we come and see the industry at its worst," he said. "They really feel a sense of relief when someone comes in a very objective way to find out what happened and make some recommendations to avoid it in the future."
Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; editing by Gunna Dickson