NASA recently presented an safety award to a one of their own 30 year + employees, for being ‘ instrumental in reshaping NASA’s safety and mission assurance program. He is a founding member of the agency’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. He managed the major revision of the NASA Safety Manual, establishing the framework for new standards.’ In an earlier blog I have written about the benefits of engaging employees by acknowledging achievements. 

However, it is strange that at the same time NASA are giving an award, they are releasing the results of an internal safety investigation which concluded they got it so wrong over this same period. NASA has now admitted that they seriously underestimated the chances of a major safety accident (they say catastrophic, not major – but for a high risk industry like rocket launches, they are the same thing!). NASA managers thought this chance was 1 in a 100,000 and engineers thought it was closer to 1 in 100. The reality, looking back over the last 30 years, is that it was about a 1 in 10 of a major disaster.

There is no doubt there was major financial, political and social pressures to continue with the NASA program during the 80s. I can see a safety manager being stuck somewhere in the muck of getting the managers to listen to the engineers. In the managers mind, engineers would have been blowing up the significance of safety. The engineers would have wondered how managers can place the risk as a 1000 times less likely than their own calculations.

Perhaps the lesson here when statistics are used to make decisions in your own workplace is to choose the conservative option. NASA are now closing down the Shuttle program. Don’t allow poor safety management to close your business.