Monday, June 25, 2012

When did you last witness safety trumping other considerations?

In popular culture, the opening sentence of a bad novel begins with the cliché phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night…”. Returning late last week from Washington, DC and a NIOSH workshop on the use of workers’ compensation data for occupational safety and health, I was stuck in Toronto-Pearson International Airport at dusk as the clouds darkened ominously. Through the boarding lounge window, I could see a wall of rain sweeping towards the terminal. On the top of every jetway, white strobes began flashing in unison. Over the handheld communicator a ground agent was carrying, I heard the announcement: the tarmac and apron were being cleared for safety reasons: lightning strikes from the dark storm clouds approaching YYZ.

The safety equation on this dark and stormy night was particularly evident. The inbound plane at our gate was a mere five meters from the jetway with a full manifest of passengers. At other gates, flights had been loaded and doors closed. Planes were still landing but backing up, still burning fuel, and clock time for aircrews. Connections were being missed, overtime incurred, and schedules overturned. Despite all these costs, all activity on the field stopped for the protection of ground crews.

Our lounge was full of passengers for Vancouver, BC or carrying on to Sydney, Australia. In almost perfect unison, thousands of people in Terminal 1 pulled smartphones and began checking connections and informing friends, families and colleagues of the indeterminent delay.

Here was an actual example of safety trumping other considerations. You can’t fuel an aircraft, load it with baggage and cargo, or push it back from the gate without workers and the risk of injury to a worker during a lightning storm is significant; an average of 57 people are killed each year in the US due to lighting strikes. Canada has shorter lightning seasons than in the US, yet lightening kills 9 or 10 people and injures between 100 and 150 people each year. Safety is about managing risks and managing the risks in this case means stopping airside operations.

How did people in my very crowded waiting lounge react? Most took the delay in stride. I heard one passenger actual say to the gate agent, “Worker safety should come first.”
After a couple of hours with intermittent starts and stops due to the storm, operations got going again. There was a huge backlog of flights. Our Air Canada flight 033 was fully loaded and had to wait 45 minutes after the doors closed before a crew was available for pushback.

Yes, we arrived home three or four hours later than planned… but we were safe and so were the crews that served us along the way.

There is nothing inherently safe about air travel. What makes it safe is a culture that values safety at every point, in the air and on the ground. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could day the same thing about every industry?

“There is nothing inherently safe about [building a bridge, lifting a patient, felling a tree…] what makes it safe is a culture that values safety.”

No comments: