Friday, March 29, 2013

Safety Culture at the Pantex Plant

Pantex Plant
On January 25, 2013 we posted about DOE's report to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) on the results of safety culture (SC) assessments at several DOE facilities, including the Pantex Plant.  Pantex was assessed because two Pantex employees had reported retaliation for raising a safety concern but the plant also had a history of potentially SC-significant issues.*

The Pantex SC assessment was performed in November 2012.  The report included several significant findings:

“Efforts to communicate and implement the principles of a High Reliability Organization (HRO) have been ongoing for several years. . . . [However,] The realization of the HRO principles has not yet been internalized by the Plant, . . .”

“The belief that the organization places a priority on safety is undermined by employee observations of poor facility conditions, lack of focus on meeting personal needs (work quality of life), and a sense of cronyism. . . . [This] has created the perception among many employees that the financial bottom line is the only focus that matters.

“There is a strong perception that retaliation exists for ‘rocking the boat.’ . . . The perception has created an environment where the raising of questions or identification of problems is not the consistently accepted way of doing business.

“The Pantex Plant has not been successful in understanding the organizational and programmatic behaviors that are necessary for a healthy safety culture. . . . organizational barriers have been created that will prevent successful implementation of the initiatives needed to enhance safe and reliable performance. . . . The barriers are also evident in the lack of respect, difficulty in effective communication, the non-alignment between the perceptions around the unions and management relationships and the notion of ‘need to know’ being extended to almost everything.”**

Sounds serious.  So what's happened since the report was published?  Well, DNFSB held a public meeting on March 14, 2013 to discuss SC problems at Pantex and management's approach to addressing them.  As one might expect, the DOE opening statement declared the SC problems were intolerable and DOE had taken immediate action—by firing off a letter to the contractor. 

“NNSA issued a letter to B&W Pantex directing immediate focus at all management and working levels to a safety conscious work environment (SCWE) for all on-going activities and operations. . . . Other immediate actions included the development of a single stop/pause work process which was provided to all employees and discussed at daily work planning meetings. The Employee Concerns Program and Equal Opportunity Office reporting chain was immediately elevated to a direct report to the General Manager’s Office, providing the highest level accesses for any employee concerns in these areas. Additionally, the differing professional opinion process was reinstated providing a formal mechanism for recognition and resolution of differing views on technical matters.

“Further, this letter directed B&W Pantex to prepare a comprehensive long-term corrective action plan mentioned previously, taking into account the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) paper on the principles of a strong nuclear safety culture.”***

DOE listed actions being implemented, including an SC focus team, a seminar on HRO attributes, SCWE training, the issuance of a plant-specific SC policy and an alignment of performance incentives with SC objectives. 

Babcock & Wilcox (B&W)

B&W, the entity that actually has to do the work, did not file any written testimony for the public meeting so we have to go to the meeting video for their comments.****

B&W appears to be on board with the need for change.  The B&W plant general manager and his safety manager were appropriately deferential to the DNFSB members and seemingly well-informed about the plant's remedial actions and SC improvement initiatives.  The GM said he “fully accepts” the assessment findings (which were consistent with the plant's own SC survey conducted just prior to the DOE HSS assessment) and acknowledged that specific problems, e.g., communication issues with respect to safety vs production, existed.  Improving SC/SCWE is the GM's “top priority.”  B&W reiterated its commitment to building an HRO at Pantex, an initiative that overlaps with actions to strengthen SC and SCWE.  Perhaps the most significant change the GM described was that 30% of managers' performance evaluations would be based on their modeling of appropriate SC/SCWE traits.

Our perspective    

Problem solved?  Not yet and not for awhile.  Pantex had some serious vertical communication and organizational structure issues.  Their attempt to build an HRO has been ongoing for years.  Their SCWE has had some cold spots. 

In addition, the actions Pantex has initiated may be necessary but there is no guarantee they will be sufficient to achieve the plant's SC/SCWE/HRO goals.  For example, there is no real discussion of how decision making processes will be affected other than resolving Nuclear Explosive Safety issues and the usual commitment to conservative decision making.  There is no mention of a corrective action program (or some functional equivalent); an integrated process for identifying, evaluating and fixing problems is essential for ensuring safety, priorities and resource allocation are treated consistently throughout the plant.

We'll watch for progress (or lack thereof) and keep you posted.

*  Pantex is the sole US site that assembles and disassembles nuclear weapons.  Within DOE, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has line management responsibility for Pantex.  Babcock & Wilcox is responsible for managing and operating the plant under contract with DOE.

The SC issues identified in the November 2012 assessment did not pop out of nowhere.  The DNFSB identified SC-related concerns at the plant during the previous year.  See statement of D.G. Ogg, Group Lead for Nuclear Weapons Programs, DNFSB, at the Pantex public meeting (March14, 2013).
**  DOE Office of Enforcement and Oversight, “Independent Oversight Assessment of Nuclear Safety Culture at the Pantex Plant” (Nov. 2012) p. 3.  The report is attached to the letter from G.S. Podansky (DOE) to P.S. Winokur (DNFSB) transmitting five independent safety culture assessments (Dec. 12, 2012).

***  Written testimony of Neile Miller, Acting Administrator, NNSA before the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board Pantex Plant Public Meeting (March 14, 2013), p. 4. 

****  The meeting video is available on the DNFSB website.  The NNSA panel on Pantex SC runs from about 1:25 to 2:30, the B&W panel runs from about 2:35 to 3:20.

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