Monday, June 9, 2014

DNFSB Observations on Safety Culture

DNFSB Headquarters
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) has been busy in the safety culture (SC) space.  First, their Chairman’s May 7, 2014 presentation on preventing major accidents provides a window into how the DNFSB views safety management and SC in the DOE complex.  Second, the DNFSB’s meeting on May 28, 2014 heard presentations on SC concepts from industry and government experts.  This post reviews and provides our perspective on both events. 

Chairman’s Presentation

This presentation was made at a DOE workshop.*  Chairman Winokur opened with some examples of production losses that followed incidents at DOE facilities and concluded the cost of safety is small compared to the cost of an accident.  He went on to discuss organizational factors that can set the stage for accidents or promote improved safety performance.  Some of these factors are tied to SC and will be familiar to Safetymatters readers.  They include the following:


The presentation quotes Schein: “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” (p. 13)  This quote is used by many in the nuclear industry to support a direct and complete connection between leadership and an organization’s culture.   While effective leadership is certainly necessary, we have long argued for a more nuanced view, viz., that leaders influence but do not unilaterally define culture.  In fact, on the same page in Organizational Culture, Schein says “Culture is the result of a complex group learning process that is only partially influenced by leader behavior.” **

Budget and production pressures and
Rewards that favor mission over safety

As Winokur pointed out, it is unfortunately true that poor safety performance (accidents and incidents) can attract resources while good safety performance can lead to resources being redirected.  Good safety performance becomes taken for granted and is largely invisible.  “Always focus on balancing mission and safety.  There will always be trade-offs, but safety should not get penalized for success.” (p. 19) 

On our part, we feel like we’ve been talking about goal conflicts forever.  The first step in addressing goal conflicts is to admit they exist, always have and probably always will.  The key to resolving them is not by issuing a safety policy, it is to assure that an entity’s decision making process and its reward and compensation system treat safety with the priority it warrants. 

Decision making

Winokur says “Understand the nature of low-probability, high-consequence accidents driven by inadequate control of uncertainty, not cause-effect relationships . . .” (p. 14) and “Risk-informed decision making can be deceptive; focus on consequences, as well as probabilities.” (p. 16)  These observations are directly compatible with Nicholas Taleb: “This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty.”***  See our June 18, 2013 post for a discussion of decisions that led to high-consequence (i.e., really bad) outcomes at Crystal River, Kewaunee and San Onofre.

There is no additional material in the presentation for a few important factors, so we will repeat earlier Safetymatters commentary on these topics.    

Complacency and
Accumulated residual risks that erode the safety margin

We have pointed out how organizations, especially high reliability organizations, strive to maintain mindfulness and combat complacency.  Complacency leads to hubris (“It can’t happen here”) and opens the door for the drift toward failure that occurs with normalization of deviance, constant environmental adaptations, “normal” system performance excursions, group think and an irreducible tendency for SC to decay over time.

Lack of oversight

This refers to everyone who has the responsibility to provide competent, timely, incisive assessment of an entity’s activities but fails to do so.  Their inaction or incompetence neither reinforces a strong SC nor prods a weak SC to improve. 

DNFSB Hearing with SC Expert Presentations

This was "the first of two hearings the Board will convene to address safety culture at Department of Energy defense nuclear facilities and the Board’s Recommendation 2011–1, Safety Culture at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant."****  This hearing focused on presentations by SC experts: Sonya Haber (an SC consultant to DOE), NRC and NASA.  The experts’ slide presentations and a video of the hearing are available here.

Haber hit the right buttons in her presentation but neither she nor anyone else mentioned her DOE client's failure to date to integrate the SC assessments and self-assessments DOE initiated at various facilities in response to Recommendation 2011-1.  We still don’t know whether WTP SC problems exist elsewhere in the DOE complex.  We commented on the DOE’s response to 2011-1 on January 25, 2013 and March 31, 2014.

Winokur asked Haber about the NRC's "safety first" view vs. the DOE's "mission/safety balance."  The question suggests he may be thinking the "balance" perspective gives the DOE entities too much wiggle room to short change safety in the name of mission.

The NRC presenter was Stephanie Morrow.  Her slides recited the familiar story of the evolution of the SC Policy Statement and its integration into the Reactor Oversight Process.  She showed a new figure that summarized NRC’s SC interests in different columns of the ROP action matrix.  Chairman Winokur asked multiple questions about how much direction the NRC gives the licensees in how to perform SC assessments.  The answer was clear: In the NRC’s world, SC is the licensee's responsibility; the NRC looks for adequacy in the consideration of SC factors in problem resolution and SC assessments.  Morrow basically said if DNFSB is too prescriptive, it risks ending up "owning" the facility SC instead of the DOE and facility contractor.

Our Perspective

The Chairman’s presentation addressed SC in a general sense.  However, the reality of the DOE complex is a formidable array of entities that vary widely in scope, scale and missions.  A strong SC is important across the complex but one-size-fits-all approaches probably won’t work.  On the other hand, the custom fit approach, where each entity has flexibility to build its SC on a common DOE policy foundation doesn’t appear to lead to uniformly good results either.  The formal hearing to receive presentations from SC industry experts evidences that the DNFSB is gathering information on what works in other fields.  

Bottom line: The DNFSB is still trying to figure out the correct balance between prescription and flexibility in its effort to bring DOE to heel on the SC issue.  SC is an vital part of the puzzle of how to increase DOE line management effectiveness in ensuring adequate safety performance at DOE facilities.

*  P.S. Winokur, “A User’s Guide to Preventing Major Accidents,” presentation at the 2014 Nuclear Facility Safety Programs Annual Workshop (May 7, 2014).  The workshop was sponsored by the DOE Office of Environment, Health, Safety, and Security.  Thanks to Bill Mullins for bring this presentation to our attention.

**  E. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), p. 11.

***  N. Taleb, The Black Swan (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 211.

****  DNFSB May 28, 2014 Public Hearing on Safety Culture and Board Recommendation 2011-1.

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