No Predictable Surprises

Mullane offered poignant insight into what happens when safety protocols are lowered, citing both the Challenger and Columbia disasters in 1986 and 2003, respectively. In summary, Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds into its fl ight after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed. Evidence of serious O-ring erosion was present as early as the second space shuttle mission, but over time the problem was treated as an acceptable flight risk. Columbia was lost due to damage caused by a piece of foam insulation breaking off from an external tank and striking the exterior of the shuttle. Original design specifi cations indicated that such debris presented a safety problem, but debris strikes eventually became viewed as inevitable, with the rationale that they were either not a threat to safety, or an acceptable risk.

Mullane called both these incidents “predictable surprises.” In other words, in the beginning, problems with the O-ring and debris were considered threats to the safety of the operation. But all projects are infl uenced by budgets, schedules, and calculated risk to safety ratios, explained Mullane. “When an organization deviates from the established best practice without negative results, we tend to rationalize the situation in order to justify the deviation,” he said. Repeated success while working in a compromised situation eventually leads to lowered standards.

While the situation with both of these shuttle missions centered around manufacturing and design, the same premise can be applied to project planning, equipment selection, crane maintenance, crew training, rigging techniques, and myriad other factors that aff ect the positive outcome of every lift made. If you think about the crane accidents you are familiar with or have read about in the headlines, it almost always comes down to a deviation from an established standard or norm. The operator got in a hurry and didn’t fully extend all four outriggers; damaged rigging gear was not removed from service; or improper maintenance or repairs caused a boom to collapse.

I understand that this is not a perfect world. Life is about weighing the odds, making business decisions, and taking calculated risks. NASA’s goal of training to eliminate all surprises—as Mullane shared regarding the protocol for teaching astronauts how to properly use a toilet in space—is one worth aspiring to. Despite this, the agency still experienced devastating loss, as can crane owners with the best safety programs in the business. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Mullane made two other points worth sharing. Th e first is that as time passes after an accident, we tend to forget the details. To prevent that memory loss, he recommends reviewing the scenario annually so that the situation doesn’t repeat itself.

The second is that everybody on the team counts when you are looking for a solution to a problem, but leaders must fi rst empower the team members to participate if they want to benefit from that diversity of perspective. The best leaders create a safe environment where diverse perspectives can be shared, evaluated, and acted upon. Collaborating to set the bar high is perhaps a good recipe for preventing a predictable surprise on the construction site.

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