Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Toothpaste and Oil Slicks

At the end of last week came the surprise announcement from the former Dominion engineer, David Collins, that he was withdrawing his allegations regarding his former employer’s safety management and the NRC’s ability to provide effective oversight of safety culture.* The reasons for the withdrawal are still unclear though Collins cited lack of support by local politicians and environmental groups.

What is to be made of this? As we stated in a post at the time of the original allegations, we don’t have any specific insight into the bases for the allegations. We did indicate that how Dominion and the NRC would go about addressing the allegations might present some challenges.

What can be said about the allegations with more certainty is that they will not go away. Like the proverbial toothpaste, allegations can’t be put back into the tube and they will need to be addressed on their merits. We assume that Collins acted in good faith in raising the allegations. In addition, a strong safety culture at Dominion and the NRC should almost welcome the opportunity to evaluate and respond to such matters. A linchpin of any robust safety culture is the encouragement for stakeholders to raise safety concerns and for the organization to respond to them in an open and effective manner. If the allegations turn out to not have merit, it has still been an opportunity for the process to work.

In a somewhat similar vein, the fallout (I am mixing my metaphors) from the oil released into the gulf from the BP spill will remain and have to be dealt with long after the source is capped or shut off. It will serve as an ongoing reminder of the consequences of decisions where safety and business objectives try to occupy a very limited success space. In recent days there have been extensive pieces* in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times delineating in considerable detail the events and decision making leading up to the blowout. These accounts are worthy of reading and digesting by anyone involved in high risk industries. Two things made a particular impression. One, it is clear that the environment leading up to the blowout included fairly significant schedule and cost pressures. What is not clear at this time is to what extent those business pressures contributed to the outcome. There are numerous cited instances where best practices were not followed and concerns or recommendations for prudent actions were brushed aside. One wishes the reporters had pursued this issue in more depth to find out “Why?” Two, the eventual catastrophic outcome was the result of a series of many seemingly less significant decisions and developments. In other words it was a cumulative process that apparently never flashed an unmistakable warning alarm. In this respect it reminds us of the need for safety management to maintain a highly developed “systems” understanding with the ability to connect the dots of risk.

* Links below

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