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Presentation by
Hazardous Materials Specialist
National Transportation Safety Board
Before the
OSHA and Hazardous Materials Seminar
Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce
Hilton Inn, Detroit, Michigan
Tuesday, March 6, 1973
The National Transportation Safety Board exerts independent oversight of safety matters in U. S. transportation.

By its inquiry into accidents and safety matters, the safety board is in a position to observe the effects of many interrelated safety efforts, by federal and nonfederal governmental agencies and by the private sector. With this perspective, a wide range of transportation safety needs can be discerned by the Safety Board. I would like to focus your attention on some of these needs. They will be examined both as they appear today, and as they appear to be emerging for the future.

Regulatory procedures are a current area of concern. The Transportation Association of America has established an ad hoc committee whose principal concern is the procedures by which regulatory safety changes are introduced and adopted. This concern reflects a number of changed conditions, the most significant of which probably is a shift in the initiative for introducing regulatory changes.

Prior to the formation of the Department of Transportation, shippers generally worked with the Bureau of Explosives, a carrier organization, to arrive at a consensus of regulatory safety changes. These changes would then be proposed to the interstate commerce commission through the Bureau of Explosives, handicapped by inadequate technical staff, the ICC relied on public comment to the proposed rules and usually ended up with little adverse comment in the circumstances. This way, the agreed-upon changes usually found their way into the regulations with little controversy. Thus the initiative for these regulations lay with the shippers and carriers.

With the formation of the DOT the former four-man Hazardous Materials Branch at the ICC was gradually transformed into the Office of Hazardous Materials, which now has 29 competent professionals on its staff. In addition, all the modes added their own hazardous materials specialists at both field and staff levels. This provides the regulatory agencies with the capability for introducing and evaluating proposals to amend the regulations. Not unexpectedly, the parties who originally controlled this process are concerned about how their views are considered by the regulatory agency which has assumed effective control of the process.

The shift in initiative has accentuated the need for predicting the safety results of the changes proposed, regardless of the source of the proposal. This issue was discussed in detail in the Safety Board’s special study, "Risk Concepts in Dangerous Goods Transportation Regulations, "in early 1971. This study pointed out the difficulties which exist because of the absence of a clear safety objective and methods for measuring the safety effects of changes in safety regulations. The Safety Board recommended that the safety measurement problem be attacked utilizing a ‘risk-based’ approach. In a moment, I will expand on this issue.

Another issue currently receiving increased attention is safety in transportation accidents involving hazardous materials. This concern takes several forms, including crashworthiness considerations in establishing regulatory requirements, and threat assessment needs.

The January 31, 1973, "Chemical Week" describes some of the "spill" considerations confronting shippers and carriers of chemicals, and merits your thoughtful attention. One of the considerations not addressed in that article, however, was the need for better approaches to minimize injuries in the event of a hazardous material, spill. This problem has been discussed by the Safety Board in numerous accident reports, embracing all modes. In accidents involving the release of hazardous materials, the proportion of casualties among emergency response personnel indicates a clear need for more crashworthy containment systems, and for better threat assessment techniques. Historically, the estimated risk to emergency personnel is 10 times higher than the risk to any of the other parties, in one mode which has been examined. The Hazardous Materials Regulations Board has proposed a "Hazard Information" system addressed to a part of this issue. However, it is as yet unresolved.

The same "Chemical Week" article identifies an other problem relative to safety in the nation’s transportation systems. Specifically, the scope of a transportation accident can be substantially enlarged when hazardous materials are present. This is not a new problem--everyone associated with transportation of these materials is aware of the Texas City and other past disasters. In recent years, however, public concern about the possibility of such catastrophes has made hazardous materials accidents increasingly unacceptable. This concern is influencing actions by the regulatory agencies and industry. One expression of this concern relates to the Special Permit process.

The Special Permit is a waiver or exemption from a codified regulatory safety requirement. One of the stated premises of the special permit process is to provide "service trials" for novel packaging of shipment systems. In its letter to the Secretary of Transportation last year, the Safety Board described how the special permit process had led to the construction of 130 million dollars worth of transport equipment which, when involved in accidents, disclosed a pattern of behavior that indicated serious safety problems. Briefly stated, the underlying issue was the use of the special permit process to allow uncontrolled growth of the use of a new package during what might be viewed as a private research project conducted at public risk. Often this is done without a rigorous safety analysis, using the latest safety analysis tools available. In its risk concepts study, and other reports, the Safety Board has taken the position that documented safety analyses should be conducted prior to the introduction of new or novel packaging, etc., to assure that the existing safety level is improved, or at least not diminished. In effect, a "safe-first-time" approach is advocated, rather than the traditional "fly-fix-fly" approach especially where hazardous materials shipments in accidents can produce catastrophic consequences.

There are other current issues, such as the length and complexity of the regulations, data requirements, jurisdictional gaps or conflicts, enforcement processes, and the like, about which you are hearing today.

What do all these problems suggest for the future?

In my view, a period of continuing change lies ahead. The directions of these changes are uncertain. However, in my opinion, there are three influential factors which will help to shape the direction of future changes. These factors are:

  1. First, the development of a sound theoretical understanding of the accident phenomenon.
  2. Secondly, the development of more useful safety measurement.
  3. Thirdly, a better understanding of the decision making processes by which risk levels are determined to be acceptable or unacceptable.
Let us examine these factors and try to relate them to future developments.

1. Traditionally, safety programs address accidents. But, what is an accident? When does it begin and end? How does it begin, and why do some events turn into accidents while others do not? What controls would be most efficient for reducing accidental losses? In short, what is "‘the accident" you are talking about?

If you want a personal demonstration of this difficulty, ask your friends around the table here, or your coworkers at the office, to write down what they think an accident is. Then compare the results. You will find each one will be different. But don’t feel inadequate. Even the experts are having difficulty describing the accident phenomenon. What does this mean to you? First, it means that accident prevention efforts are probably not well focused. Secondly, it means that it is almost impossible to determine which would provide the greatest gains in accident prevention.

In recent years, the theoretical description of the accident phenomenon is getting increasing scientific attention. New capabilities for analyzing accident mechanisms are emerging. I personally believe we are approaching the threshold of some exciting developments in this work, and when they are behind us, substantial improvements in our approaches to safety will occur.

2. A second factor is that methods for rationally measuring safety appear to be emerging.

If we could be completely safe in our society, what would be achieved, in terms of accidental losses? Would any lives be saved? I think not. After all, we must each experience death once, and only once. What would we achieve if we were free from accident losses? The answer, I believe, is that we would escape the accidental disruption of the life span of our population, property, and ecology. For example, if automobile accidents were completely eliminated as a cause of death in the United States, it has been calculated that our average life expectancy of 70.5 years at birth would be increased by 5.5 years. Yet, we do not measure safety in these terms--before the occurrence of accidents. Instead, we measure the effects of accidents - by counting fatal injuries, dollar losses, number of accidents, lost time injuries, etc.

Recent work by systems analysts and risk analysts suggests that by estimating the risk of accidental reduction in life span associated with an activity, the safety and corresponding benefits of that activity can be predicted, and subsequent losses or gains over a statistically valid period of time can be examined, to determine whether or not the estimated risk level, or safety, was achieved. Some shippers and carriers are actually engaged in such analyses today.

As these capabilities improve, other issues will begin to surface. Recently, a railroad carrier analyst took a risk-based approach to examine the transportation of a particular hazardous material over his line. On the basis of the results, he demonstrated that the business risk of transporting the material under present regulations far exceeded the possible benefits. The secondary issues which then arose ranged from clarification of his common carrier obligations to accept all traffic offered him, to the identification of safety controls which would reduce these risks to acceptable levels for his company. The "chemical week" article touches on some of these issues.

When these risk values become available for a large number of transportation movements for hazardous materials, what will this mean? I think there will be three results. First, we will be able to measure the safely efficiency of proposed changes, before they are instituted. Secondly, it means we will be able to measure the relative safety among transportation modes, or among various commodities, packaging systems, and the like. Lastly, these measurements will provide a means for resolving the issue of "how safe is safe enough."

The efficiency of safety changes is not now measured. Since a proposal to institute a safety change affects lives and money, it is desirable to know how much safety (increased useful life expectancy) will be achieved per dollar spent on the "safety improvement." As such measurements become available, alternative safety proposals to achieve a specified safety level can be compared for their safety efficiency. for the decision maker, the value of this knowledge is obvious.

If you know the relative risk of accidental injury via each alternative route available to you, wouldn’t this help you in making a route selection decision? That is what I understand one major chemical shipper is now calculating. It doesn’t take much effort to realize how you would react if you were managing a carrier who comes out second--or worse--in this kind of ranking. Or, if you were an investor in such a carrier. or if you were a regulator of such a carrier.

3. Lastly, and most importantly, these safety measurements will provide a way to resolve the controversy surrounding the question "how safe is safe enough. The answer to that question is complex. Perhaps we can shed a little light on the roots of the issue, and help you understand how it may affect future transportation of hazardous materials.

To begin with, it is essential to understand that various groups bear differing risks associated with the movement of hazardous materials. i have some examples of actual occurrences from National Transportation Safety Board records which may help to identify these groups.

  • An accident at East St. Louis, Illinois, last winter resulted in injuries to 247 persons, in an explosion of the contents from a single tank car. Over 230 of the injured were residents of the community in which the incident occurred.

  • Six crewmen died when spilled gasoline vapors on a barge ignited during the transfer of the cargo to a shore side facility.

  • Thirteen passengers were fatally injured at a grade crossing when a railroad passenger car stuck a fuel truck at a grade crossing, and fire engulfed the car.

  • Four occupants of an automobile died after prolonged exposure to an escaping toxic mixture following a car truck collision on a quiet rural road in Florida.

  • Over 60 firemen were injured when a fire and explosion erupted at Crescent City, Illinois, following a railroad derailment.
The incidents illustrate the bystanders, operating crews, passenger joint occupant, and emergency response groups at risk during transportation of hazardous materials. Each group has its own perspective about how safe is safe enough. I have some charts that may help you understand these differences more easily.


This chart represents the hypothetical risk levels associated with a single movement of a hazardous material through the transportation system--the highway mode for our example. Here, risk is expressed as the probable accidental reduction in useful life expectancy per million exposure hours for this type of shipment. These risks vary with the stage of the movement. Let us examine the first part of the movement in detail.

Chart 2

The stages for our movement are described here. Remember, the risk shown is hypothetical. Now let us look at the groups at risk during each of these stages of movement.

Chart 3
During the first stage, the shipper employees and carrier personnel are exposed to injury in the event of an accident, and so are nearby residents if the shipment is of the kind which will "jump out" at you. During the next stage, the shipper’s employees are no longer at risk, but other groups enter the picture. During stage three, the groups at risk again change. And when the shipment moves out over the road, the groups at risk again change. Why is this significant?

Chart 4

This chart illustrates the differences in the levels of risk which would probably be acceptable to these various groups, if they were known. It identifies the difficulty in establishing an acceptable risk level, particularly if you are a safety regulatory agency which functions as an arbitrator in its role of "protecting the public interest." By adopting a safety regulation, it effectively sets the risk level. What level of risk should it settle for? There is the dilemma. What level of risk is "acceptable"? To understand the significance, we must consider the benefits derived from the risk, and the circumstances affecting the bearing of the risk. SHIPPER MANAGEMENT is usually aware of the economic risk but bears this because of its profit potential. exposed SHIPPER EMPLOYEES also realize they bear some risk of personal injury, but they accept this (and this is OSHA’s concern) in exchange for the remuneration for their labor. So does the CARRIER EMPLOYEE, although his understanding of the risk may be more speculative.

Exposed RESIDENTS, on the other hand, perceive little or no direct benefit, and since their personal safety is at stake, they expect these shipments to move at essentially no risk to themselves.

PASSENGERS and other joint occupants of the pathway along which the shipment travels also recognize the existence of some risk of injury, often not understood or underestimated. However, the perceived benefits of their travel prompt them to accept some risk of injury to achieve their objective.

EMERGENCY PERSONNEL recognize that they respond to risky situations, but they, too, do not want to be exposed to any greater risks than necessary.

I believe that as we become more skilled in measuring risk of accidental injury, not only in transportation but in other fields, these risk acceptance decisions will become more rational. Work by researchers such as Chauncy Starr is shedding light on the risk level which can be observed to be historically acceptable for different kinds of activities. A risk-free life does not seem to be possible in the future--nor has it been shown to be desirable. However, the level of risk which is acceptable appears to vary with the degree of understanding and control over that risk by the risk bearer. Much remains to be learned before it becomes possible to resolve the dilemma you see. I think we are beginning to move in the direction needed to do so. It means that you can probably expect this consideration to exert an increasing influence on future changes in the area of hazardous materials transportation.

In closing, i would like to share with you comments contained in a letter from a teen-ager in illinois to a governmental official. This young lady observes:

"About 6 months ago, 145 tanks (carloads) of gas were placed about 4 miles from our town. Two days ago, one, just one, tank blew up in East St. Louis and see the damages. . .

"The reason i am so upset is because one (official) was called here to inspect the area and the tanks. (He said) we are perfectly safe. Well, maybe they weren’t a hazard to him, but he doesn’t have them in his back yard, either. . . .

These tanks are going to be used as a supply in case the city of Chicago has a shortage of gas. You are worried about running out of gas, so you put our lives on the line. "

This young lady and other persons at risk certainly deserve valid assurance that they are "safe enough," in a manner which warrants their confidence. This is not being accomplished today. Don’t be surprised if you find future changes tending to move in that direction.

Historical note

During the late '60s and early '70's a rash of railroad and highway accidents involving liquefied flammable gasses occurred, making headlines around the us. in this paper, I presented my personal views of the issues that these incidents were raising, and where the hazardous materials safety efforts might lead in the future. Since then, major shifts in both safety and emergency response philosophy occurred. Hazmat safety has received widespread attention, and the safety of their transportation has improved markedly. However, some of the issues remain, and the cost of the protection achieved in some instances is beginning to raise questions about whether the pendulum may be swinging too far into the overly cautious realm. Perhaps a new generation of people need to rethink the issues.

December 26, 1999..