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.