On October 7, 2014 the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) held its third and final hearing* on safety culture (SC) at Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear facilities. The original focus was on the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP) but this hearing also discussed the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), the Pantex plant and other facilities. There were three presenters: DOE Secretary Moniz and two of his top lieutenants. A newspaper article** published the same day reported key points made during the hearing and you should read that article along with this post. This post focuses on items not included in the newspaper article, including the tone of the hearing and other nuances. The presenters used no slides and the hearing transcript has not yet been released. The only current record of the hearing is a DNFSB video.
Moniz has been Secretary for about a year-and-a-half. In his view, the keys to improving SC are training, consistent senior management attention, and procurement modifications, i.e., DOE’s intent to revise RFP and contracting processes to include SC expectations. He also said fostering the consideration of SC in all decisions, including resource allocation, is important. Board member Sullivan asked about the SC issues at Pantex and Moniz provided a generic answer about improving self-assessments and sharing lessons learned but ultimately punted to the next presenter, Ms. Creedon.
Principal Deputy Administrator Creedon, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)
Creedon has been in her position for two months. She believes NNSA employees get the job done in spite of bureaucracy but they need greater trust in senior management who, in turn, must work harder to engage the workforce. Returning to the Pantex*** issues, Sullivan asked why the recommendations of the plant’s outside technical advisors had been ignored for years. Creedon said she would work to improve communications up and down the organization. In a separate exchange, she provided an example of positive reinforcement where NNSA employees can receive cash awards ($500) for good work.
Creedon’s prior position was in the Department of Defense. To the extent she has the warfighter mentality (“Anything, anywhere, anytime…at any cost”)**** then balancing mission and safety may not be natural for her. Her response to a question on this topic was not encouraging; she claimed the motto du jour for NNSA (“Mission First, People Always”) adequately addresses safety's prioity but it obviously doesn’t even mention safety.
Acting Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management Whitney
Whitney is also new in his job but not to DOE, coming from DOE Oak Ridge. He laid out his goals of establishing trust, a questioning attitude and mutual respect. He was asked about a SC assessment finding that DOE senior managers don’t feel responsible for safety, rather it belongs to the site leads or one of the EM mission support units. Whitney said that was unacceptable and described the intent to add SC factors to senior management evaluations. He also repeated the plan to upgrade the WTP contractor evaluation to include SC factors. He noted that most employees stay at one site for their entire career, making it hard to transfer SC from site to site.
The overall tone of the hearing was collegial. The Board expressed support and encouragement for the presenters, all of whom are relatively new in their jobs. The presenters all stayed on message and reinforced each other. For example, for WTP one message is “We know there are still significant SC issues at WTP but we have the right team in place and are taking action and making progress. Changing a decades-old culture takes time.” Whitney received more of a (polite) grilling probably because the WTP and the WIPP are under his purview.
We are totally supportive of DOE’s stated intent to add SC factors to contracts and senior management evaluations. When players have skin in the game, the chances of seeing desired behavioral changes are greatly increased. We are equally supportive of Secretary Moniz’ desire to create a culture that incorporates safety considerations in all decisions.
DOE is trying to make its employees more conscious of safety’s importance; two thousand mangers have gone through SC training and there’s more to come. Now we’re starting to worry about the drumbeat of SC creating a Weltanschauung where a strong SC is sine quo non for good outcomes and a weak SC is always present when bad outcomes occur. Organizational reality is more complicated. An organization with a mediocre SC can achieve satisfactory results if other effective controls and incentives are in place; an organization with a strong SC can still make poor decisions. And luck can run good or bad for anyone.
* DNFSB Oct. 7, 2014 Safety Culture Public Meeting and Hearing. We posted on the first hearing on June 9, 2014 and the second hearing on Sept. 4, 2014.
** A. Cary, “Moniz says safety culture at Hanford vit plant led to problems,” Tri-City Herald (Oct. 7, 2014).
*** NNSA's responsibilities include Pantex which has recognized SC issues.