Managing Small Risks Will Generally Prevent The Emergence Of Higher Risks.
By Randy K. Logsdon
Despite the occasional sensational plane crash report, the airline industry has a remarkable safety record. Truly, the adage that characterizes ground transportation as the most dangerous segment of your journey is confirmed by statistical data.
Airlines accomplish this enviable safety record by institutionalizing the elimination of risk factors. No doubt, the airline industry is as competitive as any other industry. It is dependent upon customer service that is primarily measured by on-time performance. But the airlines have managed to successfully balance the safety and service aspects of their product. A recent experience of my own effectively demonstrates how one airline handled just one of those situations.
The flight was from Orlando International to Dallas Love, aboard one of the airlines that fits into the “discount airline” category. The flight had a brief layover in Indianapolis where most of the passengers disembarked and a fresh group boarded. The plane was in line for takeoff on the Dallas leg when the captain announced that there was a question regarding the status of the left engine. We were returning to a gate so that the condition could be checked and hopefully resolved. The passengers calmly accepted the news, knowing that the delay would likely result in missed connections at Dallas.
From the customer-service perspective, assurances were made that passenger safety was the prime concern and that a maintenance service had been summoned to analyze and correct the problem. Upon arrival at the gate, airline personnel proceeded to arrange alternate connections for those who were certain to miss their connections. Other connecting flights would delay their departure to accommodate.
The captain kept passengers informed about the status of the engine problem regularly during the delay. Attention to the comfort and concerns of the passengers was handled professionally. As it turned out, the problem was not mechanical. There was an instrumentation fault that was corrected and after the engine was tested, the plane was released for takeoff.
From the safety perspective, the airline approached the situation with the attitude that all systems must be 100 percent before taking off. The flight crew had just flown the same plane from Orlando to Indianapolis and the engine had performed perfectly. The issue became apparent only after preparing for the second leg of the flight. The captain (most likely) realized that there was no mechanical damage, yet refused to proceed without first resolving the issue.
He did this realizing that 120 or more passengers would be inconvenienced. In all probability, it was not really his decision to make. No doubt, his instructions are to abort takeoff for even the smallest malfunction. Had the captain chosen to ignore the instrumentation malfunction, he would likely have faced severe disciplinary action (even if the malfunction had proven to be harmless). In essence, the response was programmed into the job. It had become a part of the culture.
The airline industry has not always been able to boast of such an excellent safety record. They have learned over the years that the root causes of airline disasters trace back to the smallest details such as an instrumentation problem. By redefining their safety standards and by actively applying those standards without exception, the airlines have become a shining example a truly successful safety culture.
In mining, we rarely become airborne, but we do operate sophisticated equipment that is susceptible to real mechanical malfunction and instrumentation malfunction. A wrong turn, an unexpected start, built-up static electricity, the failure of a warning device could cost lives. So who makes the decision to stop for inspection? What are the guidelines? What happens when warning signs are ignored?
Just how many trivial components or systems do we rely on each and every day for protection? It may be a bolt, a hydraulic fitting, a hose, a guard or even a handrail. It might involve a spilled liquid, worn insulation on a wire, a tire that is scheduled for replacement next month. Maybe it’s an indicator light, an e-stop device, a jammed door, that locking pin for a hose coupler or a window that fogs.
In mining as in the airline industry, “good enough” is not always good enough. Catastrophes are typically the culmination of a sequence of events that most often begin with an ill-chosen response to a trivial detail – a small risk. Managing those small risks will generally prevent the emergence of higher risks.
In the end, we were inconvenienced, but we made our connection at Dallas. Most importantly, I was reassured that if the airline is willing to risk aggravating passengers to correct small problems, they will certainly react to greater problems with equal diligence.