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Lessons learned from NASA accidents can improve company safety programs

TAKE a lesson from those learned at NASA in order to improve a chemical distributor's safety program, said Carolyn Merritt, US Chemical and Safety Hazard Investigation Board chairman.

She made the comment at the 2004 Operations Seminar and Trade Show (OPSEM) sponsored by the National Association of Chemical Distributors where she discussed investigation results from NASA's space shuttle disasters.

“You will recognize this as an organization/cultural event that you deal with on a regular basis,” she said, listing management changes, budget cuts, failed leadership, scheduling problems, complacency, replacing knowledgeable people (retirement, attrition, etc) with those who have less experience, lack of housekeeping, failing to search diligently for possible hazards, and neglecting to plan ahead for disasters.

“Murphy's law has not been repealed,” she said, referring to the adage that if something can go wrong, it will.

Recognizing hazards in order to prevent accidents is the key to a successful safety program, Merritt said. “It's also management's mindset on how to handle safety.”

She pointed out that even though warnings may be apparent, management can sometime interpret warnings as normal events. That means that management develops a certain sense of complacency even though events would indicate that the response should be otherwise.

In addition, she said that even when regulations and voluntary standards are in effect, neither work when people ignore or find ways around them. A lack of communication between safety managers, contractors, and others involved in the operation ultimately creates problems.

“If you don't want to hear bad news, you won't,” she said, adding, “Hunt for hazards. Don't be afraid to find something you don't want to find. Don't treat anything as routine.”

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