SAFETY: The little things can save lives

  • Published
  • By Neil Townley
  • 17th Training Wing Safety

I remember Jan. 28, 1986, vividly. That's the day when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight.

We were sitting in a classroom on the West Coast of Florida getting ready to watch the space shuttle launch on TV. Watching TV while at school is a real treat when you're a fifth-grader. To see something as cool as a flying space machine carrying seven astronauts, including one school teacher, into outer space was out of this world.

But that's also the date when the world witnessed how a series of safety discrepancies can cause a horrible tragedy. It's when NASA started to learn some very valuable lessons about how having the right "mindset" or "safety culture" can protect not only a billion dollar investment, but save lives as well. The physical product that caused Challenger to explode in flight over the Atlantic Ocean was a simple rubber O-ring, affected by environmental conditions, but it was a series of bad decisions and needless risk acceptance that allowed the space craft to make it up in the air that fateful day.

It started when engineers for the company that made the O-rings voiced concern over their abilities in the cold weather Florida had that morning. Management forwarded their concerns to NASA and one of its contractors, but through lack of communication in some situations, and the acceptance of unnecessary risk by management in other situations, the launch was allowed to proceed. A commission afterwards said that some people were under pressure to launch, which could have caused things to be overlooked or not taken as seriously as they should have. Key leaders even mentioned that unless the engineers could prove that is was not safe to launch, they were going to proceed with the mission.

When we saw it break apart on TV, we all went outside to the playground and looked to the east. Even though I lived on the opposite coast from where liftoff was, you can pretty much watch a shuttle launch from anywhere in Florida. I don't think it took very long for everyone to figure out what happened even though most stood there in disbelief. As a fifth-grader fascinated with space exploration, I knew the significance of what had just happened as I stood there looking at the plume of smoke off in the distance.

Now I want you to know the significance of creating and maintaining a positive safety culture within your organizations. Have you or someone you know ever been not taken seriously or marginalized when addressing a safety concern? Ever thought it wasn't cool to bring up safety around your peers? Do you know what your basic safety responsibilities are?

We are all under pressure, especially leadership, to produce results and accomplish the mission, and sometimes those pesky safety rules can make it take longer to accomplish that mission. But consider the alternative; is it possible to accomplish the mission when you don't have the expertise to do the job? I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say something along the lines of: "I've always done it this way and nothing has ever happened to me," "Show me where it says I can't do that," or "That's typical safety overkill." No one should have to prove how something is not safe until leaders prove that it is safe.

What is your attitude toward safety and how does it impact your organizational culture?