Tuesday, July 7, 2015

OMB Approves Revised PHMSA Pipeline Training ICR

Yesterday the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs announced that it had approved the revision request from the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) for their information collection request (ICR) for the “Qualification of Pipeline Safety Training” (OMB Control # 2137-0600). The revision was needed because of the very large decrease (459,375 hours) in the estimated annual time burden for this ICR. The table below shows the changes between the previous estimate and this most recently approved ICR

2012 Data
2015 Data
Annual # of Responses
Annual Time Burden
Annual Cost Burden
$29.3 Million
No Estimate

Change in Burden Estimate

While it is not specifically stated in the supporting document [.DOC download] the reason for the radical decrease in the annual time burden is due to a change in what is being counted as the burden. The 2012 supporting document [.DOC download] reported the 16 hours needed to conduct the training as the burden. But this is supposed to be an information collection request burden, not a regulatory burden. The revision more accurately reports the 15 minutes of training record keeping per employee.

It is interesting to note that this mistake in burden reporting has been carried through six ICR submission since 1999.

Delay in Approving ICR Revision

While the change in burden estimate appears to be well justified some oddities in the data submission to OIRA point out how many problems there are in the ICR approval process. PHMSA submitted this ICR in February of this year. The supporting document [.DOC download] originally submitted was substantially incomplete; having only the first five of the required 15 entries. None of those described the burden estimate calculations. This sort of thing happens from time to time.

The supporting document that was actually used to approve the ICR was submitted yesterday; the day that the ICR was approved. This would seem to indicate two things. First, the ICR sat on someone’s desk for some time before it was actually looked at. How long we don’t know because some of the delay between the February 2nd and July 6th may have been due to the PHMSA response in getting the correct document to OIRA after having been notified of the mistake.

The second point is that it actually only took OIRA less than one day to review the supporting data and approve the ICR. Now I understand that part of that was probably due to management pressure to concentrate on getting this ICR done in light of the delay in detecting the data submission error. But it does point out that the current length of time (months) it takes OIRA to approve a routine ICR is way out of line with the time it actually takes to approve an ICR. As a taxpayer, I would hope that this is a staffing-workload issue and not a process management issue, but after the OPM hack fiasco I am not so sure.

Training Issue

While this is not directly related to the ICR and thus not in the OIRA review purview, the supporting documents do portray a training problem that I think has been grossly overlooked by PHMSA. The most recent supporting document states:

“However, not all covered employees are trained every year.  There is an approximate 6-year training cycle for the impacted personnel.”

Now, I have looked at both the statutory training requirement {49 USC 60102(a)(3)} and the regulatory requirement (49 CFR 192.805) and can find nothing in the language that specifically provides for a 6 year training cycle.

The law requires that:

“The operator of a pipeline facility shall ensure that employees who operate and maintain the facility are qualified to operate and maintain the pipeline facilities.”

The regulation requires that each operator will:

“Ensure through evaluation that individuals performing covered tasks are qualified”

Anyone that has any real experience in training management or training evaluation knows that skill proficiency is transitory. Surprisingly to most people this even includes skills that are routinely employed on a routine basis. The reason for that is that people routinely try to find easier ways to complete routine tasks. Some of the ‘shortcuts’ developed make a lot of sense, but many do not. It does not matter which, employees will tend to incorporate the short cuts that ‘work’ (ie: get the job done in the easiest manner possible) in their day-to-day work.

The only way to overcome this is through a routine and rigorous training and skill evaluation program. Having a six year training cycle does not qualify as ‘routine’ or ‘rigorous’.

When I was in the military we had an annual Skill Qualification Test (SQT). The Army had developed a list of general and job specific tasks in which each soldier was required to be proficient. The most critical tasks were evaluated every year, and the less critical tasks were evaluated on a randomly rotating basis. First-line supervisors were also required to evaluate a soldier’s performance to standard on these tasks in an actual duty environment during the year.

Maybe it is time for Congress to re-look at how well PHMSA is completing their oversight responsibility of ensuring that pipeline employees are ‘qualified to operate and maintain the pipeline facilities”.

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