Audit Criticizes NASA’s Management of Hazardous Materials

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA needs to do a better job of storing and managing hazardous materials at its field centers to prevent accident and injuries, according to a new audit by the space agency’s Office of Inspector General.

“We found that hazardous materials are not managed uniformly across the Agency, the Centers we visited did not consistently implement adequate controls, and employees and contractors at times circumvented existing controls to acquire hazardous materials,” the audit said.

Auditors reviewed hazardous materials practices at four field facilities: Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas; Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.; and Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss. They discovered problems at each location.

“These findings suggest a likelihood of weak controls over hazardous materials Agency-wide,” the auditor said. “Specifically, we found a lack of accountability by a designated organizational manager in the acquisition of hazardous materials and a lack of review by a designated official prior to the acquisition of hazard materials by purchase card users.”

Among the problems auditors found were:

  • inadequate controls over the acquisition of highly hazardous chemicals
  • poor performance in keeping track of inventory items
  • failure to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines
  • rusty and corroded metal shelving holding hazardous chemicals, and
  • an outdoor hazardous waste holding facility without adequate protection from adverse weather.

The audit make eight recommendations for improving NASA’s handling of hazardous materials (see list below). The space agency concurred or partially concurred with all of them.

The audit’s Results in Brief section is below. Read the full report here.

NASA’s Management of Hazardous Materials

NASA Office of Inspector General
Report No. IG-21-006 (PDF)
Dec. 3, 2020

Results in Brief

Why We Performed This Audit

A hazardous material is any substance that poses a significant risk to health, safety, or property. NASA uses hazardous materials on a daily basis, including acids, bases, and oxidizers in research laboratories; propellants and fuels in engine testing; ethanol-based solvents in engineering laboratories; ammonia, acetone, and glycols in flight equipment operations; and chemicals in simulated planetary environmental testing. These materials can be toxic, reactive, flammable, or explosive and, if poorly managed, can result in personal injury, property damage, or require costly clean-up.

The overall objective of this audit was to evaluate NASA’s processes and procedures regarding the acquisition, handling, storage, and disposal of hazardous materials. Additionally, we evaluated the Agency’s efforts to protect personnel, the public, and the environment from these materials. As part of this review, we visited Goddard Space Flight Center (Goddard), Johnson Space Center (Johnson), Langley Research Center (Langley), and Stennis Space Center (Stennis) to observe and assess their hazardous materials processes and operations. At each of the four Centers, we identified 100 hazardous materials to test controls over their acquisition, storage, use, and disposal. We also interviewed officials from the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance, and Logistics and Environmental Divisions at NASA Headquarters.

What We Found

We found that hazardous materials are not managed uniformly across the Agency, the Centers we visited did not consistently implement adequate controls, and employees and contractors at times circumvented existing controls to acquire hazardous materials.

These findings suggest a likelihood of weak controls over hazardous materials Agency-wide. Specifically, we found a lack of accountability by a designated organizational manager in the acquisition of hazardous materials and a lack of review by a designated official prior to the acquisition of hazard materials by purchase card users.

In addition, we found inadequate controls over the acquisition of highly hazardous chemicals. For example, although Goddard policy requires a prohibited and restricted list of highly hazardous materials, the Center does not maintain such a list, does not have a documented hazardous materials acquisition review process, and does not restrict these dangerous items.

According to Center personnel, the Center culture supports the use of any material needed to conduct research and meet operational needs. As a result, NASA has accepted increased risks associated with the acquisition of hazardous materials that could result in personal injury or property and environmental damage.

Further, the Agency does not have adequate internal controls for managing its inventory of hazardous materials. Federal regulations require organizations that maintain hazardous materials to identify chemicals harmful to personnel and the environment and to develop strategies to mitigate associated risks. We randomly selected and traced 100 items from each of the four Centers’ inventory and found that they did not accurately record all hazardous materials when delivered, stored, and consumed.

For example, at Langley 25 of 100 (25 percent) sample items could not be located. We determined that the missing items had been either consumed, moved to another location, or had not been updated in the Center’s database. Moreover, each Center uses a standalone database to track their hazardous materials, resulting in a lack of sufficient insight by Headquarters management into the extent of the Agency’s hazardous materials inventory and overall risk.

During our visits to the four Centers, we also observed inconsistent storage practices as well as conditions at Langley and Stennis that did not follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines or comply with Center-specific procedures. For example, while laboratory storage facilities at Goddard and Johnson were organized, clean, and met CDC guidelines for storing chemicals, at Langley we found a storage room with chemicals on rusty and corroded metal shelving within a building that houses research laboratories. The severely corroded shelving resulted from leakage in an overhead water line.

At Johnson, we found the Center’s outdoor 90-day hazardous waste holding facility was not adequately protected from adverse weather and employees did not consistently monitor when waste was scheduled for disposal from the facility.

What We Recommended

In order for NASA to increase transparency, accountability, and oversight of its hazardous materials, we recommended that the Associate Administrator for Mission Support in coordination with the Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance and Office of Chief and Health Medical Officer undertake an Agency-wide initiative to:

  1. Ensure that an appropriate organizational manager who is authorized to accept risks on the Center Director’s behalf is included in the hazardous materials acquisition process as the concurring authority.
  2. Establish a unified purchase card policy and designate an appropriate official at each Center to ensure hazardous material acquisitions made via purchase cards are appropriately approved, received, and tracked.
  3. Ensure contractors and tenants at NASA Centers report their hazardous material inventory to Center management at least annually.
  4. Evaluate Centers’ application of Agency policy to maintain a list of restricted and prohibited materials and their associated waiver processes and make improvements as warranted.
  5. Assess various options for development and implementation of an Agency-wide hazardous materials information system that tracks hazardous materials throughout the life cycle, and ensure processes are in place to consistently maintain a complete and accurate inventory.
  6. Develop and implement an Agency-wide policy that establishes a standard for storage spaces and facilities used to house hazardous materials.
  7. Require Center Directors to inspect and replace, as required, laboratory hazardous material storage structures and improve shelters that do not follow CDC guidelines or comply with Agency requirements.
  8. Inspect and evaluate Centers’ 90-day storage facilities and processes and make improvements as warranted.

We provided a draft of this report to NASA management, who concurred or partially concurred with our recommendations. We consider management’s comments responsive; therefore, the recommendations are resolved and will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions.