Applying Aerospace to Energy

A few days ago I took my car in for new tires.  The tire place was extremely busy, and their multiple bays were hectic with cars rolling in and out, tires coming off and being installed.  It was a blur of motion and energy, even on a hot humid summer day.  When my car was ready, I saw something I had never seen before at a tire place:  one of the workers walked out of the bay, behind and to the side of my car, and provided a lookout with hand signals to the guy backing my car out of its bay.  That is a safety action.  I wonder what caused the tire company management to impose that procedure.  Did somebody get hurt in the busy driveway outside the car bays?  Or did somebody’s car get thoroughly dinged up because cross traffic was not spotted in time?  Whatever the cause, it makes perfect sense to have a safety spotter with 360 degree visual observation help the guy in the driver’s seat in a bay with restricted visibility. 

These days, companies are trying to squeeze the last bit of productivity out of their workers. I wondered how much this simple procedure cost.  It was only a couple of minutes of the spotter’s time; yet in those minute he could have been in the process of installing newly sold tires.  At the end of the day, after dozens of short back-out safety work stoppages, would the company have been able to sell and mount another set of tires or two by skipping that safety break in the action?  Or could they have gotten by with one less worker in that busy shop?  Either possibility is likely; stopping to implement a safety procedure clearly has a cost.  And clearly this particular company felt it was a worthwhile cost.

When NASA decided to finally send me to project management school – well after I was a project manager – one of the tidbits that lodged in my brain was this:  good practice for high risk/high reliability organizations devotes 10% of their budget to safety.  10% of the total or annual budget should go to staffing the safety organization, to the engineering analysis that supports safety, to the quality assurance process, to the probabilistic risk assessment, for personal protective equipment for the workers, to the problem reporting and corrective action systems, and all the other things that good companies do in the name of safety.  10% for safety; sounds easy but it’s not. The budget cutters have their orders and when push comes to shove safety gets cut.  Sometime later the real price gets paid; usually a lot more than the budget cutters saved; and sometimes the price is in blood, not money. 

I have lived through the consequences of budget cutters gutting a safety program.  I have no desire to live through it again.  Funerals are not my favorite pastime.

My old colleague Terry Wilcutt has been recently named the head of NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance in Washington, DC.  A good choice I think.  A few weeks earlier Terry co-authored an op/ed calling for safety workers laid off from the dwindling space program to find jobs in the burgeoning energy industry.  In Houston, at least, that is occurring with great frequency.

So I find myself – and my company – in that transition.  We have started to work for a couple of major energy firms, helping develop more comprehensive safety products and processes; helping to define operating procedures which have fewer opportunities for mistakes to occur.  Drilling for oil and gas is as complex a technical process as launching a satellite, and requires almost as much money.  And can be as costly in money and blood when things go wrong.

Will the aerospace safety culture improve the energy sector?  I think it’s worth a try.

We learned some hard lessons at great cost in space; if those lessons pay off on the ground that would be worthwhile.

About waynehale

Wayne Hale is retired from NASA after 32 years. In his career he was the Space Shuttle Program Manager or Deputy for 5 years, a Space Shuttle Flight Director for 40 missions, and is currently a consultant and full time grandpa. He is available for speaking engagements through Special Aerospace Services.
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11 Responses to Applying Aerospace to Energy

  1. Something like a penny wise, eh?

  2. Beth Webber says:

    As you say, you can operate an organization for a while, maybe even a long while, without a safety program, but in the end a price is paid for this. Usually, much more expensive than the safety program would have been. This seems so self-evident to me, but apparently not.

    A lot of what we’ve learned in space has been implemented on the ground. Lets hope that this hard-learned lesson will be as well.

    As always, a thoughtful and insightful post.

    Beth

  3. Beth Beck says:

    Cool that you’re applying your extensive knowledge (lessons learned) to other sectors, such as the energy industry. Another link to Energy: NASA is hosting a LAUNCH:Energy sustainability forum in November at the Kennedy Space Center to highlight ten disruptive innovations poised to solve problems facing human life on this planet. We’re in the process of collecting submissions right now for our partnership with Department of State, USAID and Nike. More about LAUNCH:Energy @ http://launch.org. LAUNCH, btw, is a non-traditional opportunity to make this world a better place while demonstrating the relevance between life on Earth and the extreme environment of space.

  4. Phil A says:

    The two industries (space and energy) are in some ways quite similar.

    Both deal with complex systems. That means that safety is not so much about fire drills, but more about identifying dangerous conditions. We know that most major accidents were the result of a combination of low-risk combinations. ‘The jet is ok unless you do a hard bank with the rudder hard left and the right engine shut off’… that kind of thing. Looking back at our incident in the gulf, I recall one low-risk element was a battery that was not charged. There are times when that will be ok, and times when it is clearly not ok.

    Both are high risk. A small error can result in a large problem. Discharged battery, international incident.

    In both cases, cutting a corner can result in a large gain, or avoiding a penalty. The very obvious example here is Shuttle Challenger.

    Well, I did not mean to go on so long. Wayne, congratulations to you and your company.

  5. Chris says:

    I work with a major oil company in Europe, with an outstanding safety record and what is regarded as amongst the best when it comes to safety. One of the basic things they teach in the mandatory safety course required to work at their locations, is that major accidents rarely happen due to one big malfunction. Instead, the safety margin is gradually eroded through multiple seemingly harmless incidents, until you have no safety margin and another incident occurs.

    • waynehale says:

      Exactly. There is always an error chain that allows a catestrophic event to occur. If we can break the chain at any point, the accident can be prevented. I find that near miss reporting is critical to a robust safety program in a high risk endeavor.

  6. You make an excellent point that NASA can provide useful lessons for other industries. I hope the agency will make the effort to do so in all areas where it has the capability, not just in spaceflight.

  7. waynehale says:

    This is not a NASA or federal agency initiative. It is private industry. I am no longer in the federal service and our company is a for-profit one. Free enterprise can recognize that safety is important to the bottom line . . . and for lots of other reasons.

  8. waynehale says:

    Note to Ricky who wrote a long comment about the JSC S&MA office: I appreciated your note and will look into what you wrote, but my rule here is not to post comments longer than the original blog. I did not know some of the particulars you mentioned and will report what I find out at an appropriate time … and of course it was not really on the topic of this post .. .

  9. Dave says:

    Wayne,
    Thanks for the heartfelt support for safety and the safety & mission assurance disciplines. And thanks for noticing and highlighting that tire worker’s conscientious behaviors. Not very many people see those simple, yet valuable acts for what they are and what they prevent. Safety and safety-minded folks’ objectives are ultimately to make sure nothing (bad) happens. That’s not always a very shiny profitable bauble to ambitious managers. Success breeds complacency and usually attracts the gaze of hungry, cost-cutting eyes. It’s leaders like you who remind us of the value of safety.

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