It was July 27th 1989 and I was the chief engineer officer on a cargo ship hundreds of miles from shore. We were travelling between Morocco and France with a full load of oranges. I was sitting in my cabin when the shout of “Fire!” came booming down the corridor – followed by the piercing fire alarm. With my heart racing and my engineer mind going through ingrained emergency procedures “Shut down the air conditioning fans, shut the ventilation dampers, slow down the engine, start up the fire pump….” I ran and turned the corner into a wall of smoke with orange flames flickering in the background. Less than an hour later the fire was out, adrenalin was easing itself from my bloodstream, and I was looking at the melted mass of a burnt out washing machine and a room and corridor with smoke, water and heat damage.
This was a time when the cargo shipping industry was in a lengthy economic downturn, and doing things cheaply had become the norm. Accidents were so routine that I slept with my working coveralls laid out beside my bed so I could dress and hurry to the emergency. When I would go home on vacation from a six month voyage, I would look gaunt and sick from stress.
The washing machine had caught fire because it had a water heater that would stay on whether there was water or not. The last person using the washing machine had switched on the heater to wash his oily working clothes, but had forgotten to turn the manual heater switch off after the wash cycle. The washing machine had no safety devices to prevent this kind of accident. It heated up to a critical point then exploded into flames. I informed the ship owners in London of the cause, and requested a better washing machine with safety controls.
It was to my amazement when we arrived in port in Marseilles, France to see a brand new washing machine awaiting us, of exactly the same make and model. The economic downturn had reduced the safety culture to a tattered safety poster on the wall.
Twenty years and two careers later as I sit pondering some of the major challenges to engineers in my “circle”, an alert e-mail popped up from the US Government Chemical Safety Board (CSB). The e-mail pointed directly towards challenges that engineers face as companies go through tough financial times and cycles of cost cutting, re-engineering, or a declaration of “survival mode”. These are times where decisions are made that can lead to accidents, the accidents probably do not happen immediately (which helps justify the thought process), the things that cause accidents tend to fester in the background until circumstances line up to allow bad things to happen. After the accident engineers and others get to look in the mirror and ask the questions, “How did we get here?”, “Is there something I could have done to prevent this?” “What if I had spoken up at the cost-cutting meetings?”
These are tough times for engineers we enter our careers; with passion, and in the blink of an eyelid, we can be put in a box where we feel our ethics getting eroded and our attention to detail getting watered down.
Chemical Safety Board Bulletin:
“My safety message for oil and chemical companies is clear: even during economic downturns, spending for needed process safety measures must be maintained,” Chairman Bresland stated. He noted that the CSB investigation of the 2005 Texas City refinery disaster linked the accident to corporate spending decisions in the 1990s, when low oil prices triggered cutbacks in maintenance, training, and operator positions at the plant. A total of 15 people were killed and 170 injures. Costs to the company were in the billions of dollars.
Anyone who has had a serious accident at work knows the devastative effect on workers. In my first career where I spent 14 years as an engineering officer on cargo ships, I was involved in three major fires- one explosion and the fatality of a friend. I got the opportunity to look in the mirror and ask if I could have done something differently. So what are some of the potential results of an accident?
• Morale gets eroded
• Workers lose focus and more accidents can start lining up
• The “blame game” can start and relationships get broken
• Worker energy levels are impacted
• Trust levels are impacted
• Work loads can increase due to investigating accidents and taking corrective action
• The company image can be impacted
• People get hurt, equipment gets damaged and the company finances are strained even further.
Ten Ways Exceptional Workplaces Stay Focused During Economic Downturns
1. Generate a strong safety culture and “transparency” from the board of directors all the way down to the front line.
2. Develop workers so they are not afraid to speak openly
3. Establish open communication channels at all levels of the organization
4. Incorporate a culture where senior management interact with employees and solicit ideas for safe cost reduction
5. Produce systems where employee ideas are considered. Employees receive recognition and rewards for ideas that are implemented
6. Recognize and reward employees so they feel invested in the solution and bring ideas to the table
7. Employ experts who get down to the detail, challenge ideas, come up with alternatives and have exceptional communication skills
8. Invest in employee career development including communication skills.
9. Develop employees so they have the expertise, confidence, communication skills and ethics to convince people of adverse consequences of actions and are also able to convince people of alternative approaches
10. Incorporate a culture where the senior management lead by example and are respected. A culture where employees will do anything to help each other and advance the company. They evoke a self-sustaining workplace of creativity, employee empowerment and energy.
The day I got married was the day I quit this career. The history of accidents that I had been immersed in played a big part in my decision. After 14 years as an engineering officer, I had reached the top of my career in qualifications and rank, was earning an excellent salary, and was travelling the world- but it was not a journey I wanted to continue. The change in career took me off in a different direction, and allowed me to pursue my passion to prevent accidents.