Wednesday, June 15, 2011

DNFSB Goes Critical

Hanford WTP
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB)issued a “strongly worded” report* this week on safety culture at the Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP).  The DNFSB determined that the safety culture at the WTP is “flawed” and “that both DOE and contractor project management behaviors reinforce a subculture at WTP that deters the timely reporting, acknowledgement, and ultimate resolution of technical safety concerns.”

For example, the Board found that “expressions of technical dissent affecting safety at WTP, especially those affecting schedule or budget, were discouraged, if not opposed or rejected without review” and heard testimony from several witnesses that “raising safety issues that can add to project cost or delay schedule will hurt one's career and reduce one's participation on project teams.”

Only several months ago we blogged about initiatives by DOE regarding safety culture at its facilities.  In our critique we observed, “Goal conflict, often expressed as safety vs mission, should obviously be avoided but its insidiousness is not adequately recognized [in the DOE initiatives]."  Seems like the DNFSB put their finger on this at WTP.  In fact the DNFSB report states:

“The HSS [DOE's Office of Health, Safety and Security] review of the safety culture on the WTP project 'indicates that BNI [Bechtel National Inc.] has established and implemented generally effective, formal processes for identifying, documenting, and resolving nuclear safety, quality, and technical concerns and issues raised by employees and for managing complex technical issues.'  However, the Board finds that these processes are infrequently used, not universally trusted by the WTP project staff, vulnerable to pressures caused by budget or schedule [emphasis added], and are therefore not effective.” 

The Board was not done with goal conflict. It went on to cite the experience of a DOE expert witness:

“The testimony of several witnesses confirms that the expert witness was verbally admonished by the highest level of DOE line management at DOE's debriefing meeting following this session of the hearing.  Although testimony varies on the exact details of the verbal interchange, it is clear that strong hostility was expressed toward the expert witness whose testimony strayed from DOE management's policy while that individual was attempting to adhere to accepted professional standards.”

This type of intimidation need not be, and generally is not, so explicit. The same message can be sent through many subtle and insidious channels which are equally effective.  It is goal conflict of another stripe - we refer to it as “organizational stress” - where the organizational interests of individuals - promotions, performance appraisals, work assignments, performance incentives, etc. - create another dimension of tension in achieving safety priority.  It is just as real and a lot more personal than the larger goal conflicts of cost and schedule pressures.

*  Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Recommendation 2011-1 to the Secretary of Energy "Safety Culture at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant" (Jun 9, 2011).

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