Board investigating shuttle crash to talk with safety experts

Private seminar to discuss techniques companies, others use to reduce risk

April 27, 2003|By Kevin Spear | Kevin Spear,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NASA's safety practices will be dissected today and tomorrow when the Columbia Accident Investigation Board holds a private seminar with six experts.

Their backgrounds are in academics, industry and, to a far more limited extent, space.

They are not expected to dwell on the hazards of sending astronauts into orbit. Instead, the experts will describe the instincts, habits and techniques of organizations that strive hardest to reduce risks.

"The issue is, `How do you create foresight?'" said David Gaba, an Ohio State University professor who will participate in the seminar. "You want to get to the point where you start to see where accidents are waiting to happen."

The investigation board expects to issue a range of recommendations for NASA's recovery from the Feb. 1 Columbia tragedy, including ways of improving overall safety.

To do so, board members will draw to large degree from safety practices and experiences outside NASA.

As the Navy did with its loss of the USS Thresher in 1963, many organizations have turned safety into a religion after suffering a catastrophe.

For DuPont, that institutional memory dates back nearly 200 years to a deadly explosion that ripped through one of its gunpowder factories. Safety evolved into an obsession for workers on and off the job.

"When it becomes part of the culture, it becomes a much easier job," said Deborah L. Grubbe, a participant in the investigation-board seminar and corporate director for safety at DuPont. The corporation, a worldwide manufacturer of chemicals and other materials, has long been respected as leader in industrial safety.

Safety experts say strategies can be shared among a wide variety of industries and organizations, but that depends on the degree of motive for limiting risk. For NASA, greater risk-taking may be a necessary part of carrying out missions.

"Perhaps what makes them so successful also makes them more prone to accidents," said Nancy G. Leveson, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. She is also a member of the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and will participate in the seminar.

"If they tried to be perfectly safe and took out all risk, then they couldn't do missions."

In fact, NASA safety practices are widely respected among organizations that deal with higher levels of risk.

Intel Corp. safety director Jim Wick, who will attend the seminar, said, "Many of us have learned a lot from NASA."

NASA's approach to safety has three prongs. The first concerns the built-in margin of safety when it comes to design and procedure for space hardware.

The second prong is in workforce culture, in which employees are encouraged to call attention to anything amiss.

It is the third aspect of NASA safety practice - using analysis of trends to spot hints of an impending disaster - that is likely to draw much attention.

That "trend analysis" is a backbone of efforts among the most safety-conscious organizations.

"You've got to be data driven," said Allan McMillan, chief operating officer for the National Safety Council and one of the experts invited to the seminar. "You've got to understand the risks."

But NASA's trend analysis has been criticized often. That was the case after the Challenger accident, in which the shuttle was brought down in 1986 by a type of failure that engineers had noted in previous flights but had not resolved.

The agency's trend analysis was highlighted in 1999 by the Space Shuttle Independent Assessment Team, which reported that "such information is neither entered, entered correctly, nor readily retrieved in the existing system."

In an interview last week, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said improving NASA's ability to analyze trends is probably the most difficult challenge the agency will face in trying to get the shuttles flying again.

"It's really been a bedeviling question," he said. "It's not that people don't agree we shouldn't do it; it's converging on what is the best approach to do it."

Kevin Spear is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. Gwyneth Shaw and Tamara Lytle of the Sentinel's Washington bureau contributed to this article.

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