On Friday, August 29, Carolyn Merritt, 61, the former chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (2002-2007) passed away after a valiant battle against metastic breast cancer.  Advocates for workers’ safety will remember Ms. Merritt as an outspoken expert who minced no words when she insisted that work-related injuries and fatalities are PREVENTABLE.

Tammy Miser of United Support and Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF) came to know the CSB chairwoman after Tammy lost her brother, Shawn Boone, in an aluminum dust explosion at his workplace in Huntington, Indiana in 2003.  Tammy writes:

Some people step into our life and it is never the same.  Carolyn Merritt was a guide and led the way for my actions to promote stronger on-the-job protections for workers.  Whether she wants it or not Carolyn W. Merritt is one of my heroes. 

The CSB’s current chair, John Bresland, issued a statement noting that he served with Carolyn Merritt and committed “to build on her legacy.”

“Carolyn believed passionately in the CSB’s mission. She worked tirelessly to save lives of workers and the public through chemical accident prevention, insisting on thorough investigations and meaningful safety recommendations.  Following the tragic refinery explosion in Texas City in 2005, Carolyn became a crusader for greater corporate investment in chemical process safety and elevated the term “safety culture” into company boardrooms around the world.”

“Carolyn embraced the need for greater protections against combustible dust, having witnessed first-hand the terrible destruction from fatal dust explosions in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana [report here] during her years on the board. She was the principal source and interview in a 2006 CBS News 60 Minutes story on our BP Texas City Refinery investigation, and appeared just this year – while fighting her cancer – in a 60 Minutes story on the hazards of combustible dust and the explosion at a sugar refinery in Savannah, Georgia.  he conducted hundreds of interviews and gave countless speeches in pursuit of the CSB mission.

I never had the privilege of meeting Ms. Merritt, but I relished the chance to see her testify at congressional hearings and on TV programs like PBS’s News Hour and CBS’s 60 Minutes.  There was none of that mamsy-pamsy language from her about employers’ duty to provide safe workplaces.  It was always refreshing to her Merritt comment on the sorry state of our nation’s workplace safety regulatory and enforcement systems because what we too often hear in this town are excuses for company officials who have put the lives and health of their employees at risk.

In June of 2007, when OSHA’s Asst. Secretary Ed Foulke was patting himself on the back when he announced that federal inspectors would be doing more inspections at the nation’s refineries, Carolyn Merritt, said she was

“happy OSHA is launching this new enforcement effort but wishes it had been undertaken years ago.”

On at least one occassion, I was so impressed by her attitude that I suggested her male counterparts in other worker safety agencies:

“…need balls like the Chemical Safety Board’s Carolyn Merritt, who has the tough-minded attitude that employers who knowingly put their workers at risk and repeatedly violate safety and health regulations, should be punished.”

The world is a better place because of Carolyn Merritt’s commitment to worker safety and justice.  She will be missed, but never forgotten.

If you’d like to share words of condolence or gratitude to Carolyn Merritt’s family, visit her CaringBridge site here.

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