Monday, April 2, 2012

A Breath of Fresh Air - From a Coal Mine

It may seem odd to find a source of fresh air in the context of the Massey coal mine disaster of 2010, a topic on which we have posted before.  But the news last week of a former mine supervisor’s guilty plea yielded some very direct observations on the breakdown of safety in the mine.  In a Wall Street Journal piece on March 29, 2012, it was reported:

“Booth Goodwin, the U.S. Attorney in Charleston, W.Va., wrote in the plea agreement that "‘laws were routinely violated’ by Massey because of a belief that ‘following those laws would decrease coal production.’"

Sometimes it takes a lawyer’s bluntness to cut through all the contributing circumstances and symptoms of a safety failure and place a finger directly on the cause.  How often have you seen such unvarnished truth telling with regard to safety culture issues at nuclear plants? 

“[The supervisor] specifically pleaded guilty to tipping off miners underground about inspections, falsifying record books, illegally rewiring a mining machine to operate without a functioning methane monitor and altering the mine's ventilation to trick a federal inspector.”

The above findings are more typical of what one sees in nuclear plant inspection reports and which are attributed to lack of strong safety culture.  This in turn triggers the inevitable safety culture assessments, retraining, re-iteration of safety priorities, etc that appear to be the standard prescription for a safety culture “fever”.  But what - continuing a not so good medical analogy - is causing the fever?  And why would one expect that the one size fits all prescription is the right answer?

To us it gets down to something that isn’t receiving enough attention.  What are the root causes of the problems that are typically associated with a finding that safety culture needs to be strengthened?  We will share our thoughts, and ask for yours, in an upcoming post.

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