Friday, June 18, 2010

What Flying Can Teach the Oil Industry

Last night I dreamed I was floating on a raft on a lovely pond I know in northern Connecticut. I was thrilled because the water was so clear I anticipated seeing lots of animals. But the first thing to appear was a dead whale, its snout protruding from the water like a boulder.


I turned the raft around and I was in the middle of a hellish ocean. A large black snake broke the surface heading towards me. Then I saw many more animals littering the water, their corpses flipped sideways and puddles of brown oil slid by. I saw boats ahead and I paddled toward them. As I drew closer I could see environmentalists being peppered by questions from reporters. I had my own questions but when I boarded the boat, it was empty.

One need not be a psychiatrist to interpret my dream. The world shares this nightmare. The question that keeps coming to me as I read with horror about the ongoing crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, is "How many of the lessons from flying would have prevented, could have prevented the Deep Water Horizon oil spill?"

Why does it seem none of them were being followed in this similarly complex and high stakes operation?

A history of safety problems, drilling technology that outpaced response procedures, a lack of redundancy, a federal agency known to be "cozy with industry", a chief executive who's answer to a congressional inquiry on whether the company put profit before safety who responds, “I was not part of that decision-making process.”

Earlier this week I spoke with Dr. Eduardo Salas, an expert in human factors and industrial psychology and a professor at the University of Central Florida. So that when I read of the BP chief's response in this morning's paper, Dr. Salas characterization of how to create a safe industry rang back like the morning alarm clock.

"To make change for people to comply starts at the top," he told me. "You can talk about safety and not have a culture of safety. Those who do from the number one guy to the janitor - they think about safety, they have policies and procedures, they reinforce safe behavior they create conditions under which people see this as 'important to me, to my teammate, to my company to my organization.' But not the oil industry apparently."

I'm not writing this to gripe. I'm spilling my dreams into the blog-o-sphere because I think that among you, dear readers and fellow aviation aficionados, there are answers. Through nearly two decades working in civilian and military aviation, Dr. Salas has come to this conclusion,

"Organizations get the behaviors they measure and reinforce. If you want teamwork, measure and reinforce it. If you want safety, measure and reinforce it."

Going down the list of aviation systems, well let's call them Flying Lessons, I count more than a dozen practices that systematize and reinforce safe behaviors, checklists, walk-arounds, crew resource management, pre-flight planning, flight debriefing, risk benefit analysis and its bureaucratic partner, cost benefit analysis, recurrent training, standardization. I could go on but I'd rather hear what you have to say.

Humans are fallible, technology is evolving, and nature is unpredictable. Aviation has been largely successful in navigating these truths. This is what flying has to teach the the oil industry and the mining industry and medicine and...well as I said, I'd like to hear from you.
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