2 May 2017

Ex -astronaut warns NZers against workplace complacency

10:39 am on 2 May 2017

A former United States astronaut has warned Northland refinery workers that a gung-ho attitude to risk is the biggest threat to their safety.

Mike Mullane.

Former United States astronaut, Mike Mullane, is visiting New Zealand. Photo: Mike Mullane.com

Colonel Mike Mullane lost close astronaut friends in January 1986 when the Challenger space shuttle exploded shortly after take-off, killing its crew of seven.

He's in New Zealand this week, at the invitation of the New Zealand Refining Company, talking to business leaders, and workers about how and why that happened.

The 71-year-old former fighter-pilot and astronaut was just 30 when his friends died on the Challenger.

The mechanical cause was the failure of the now infamous O-rings on the rocket boosters in cold conditions.

But Colonel Mullane said the underlying cause was pressure on NASA to push the limits.

"If you want my opinion, the root cause was a programme with an unattainable schedule.

"One of the findings of the Rogers Commission (after the disaster) was they were trying to expand the flight rate to 24 missions a year and the vehicle was not the simple, cheap, easy-to-operate vehicle that they hoped would sustain a flight rate like that."

'Go Fever'

The inquiry found people were being "buried" by the schedule, not having time to investigate a problem arising in one flight before having to deal with the next.

Mr Mullane said the astronauts never knew that engineers had been warning NASA the O-Rings could fail with disastrous consequences.

He said the enthusiasm of the astronauts for the Space Shuttle project only added to what the inquiry called "Go Fever".

"Because astronauts, frankly, were in the mode of 'Let's fly!' "

Astronauts had not known about the O-ring problem but they contributed to the general sense of urgency, Colonel Mullane said.

"Astronauts would sit around in meetings and there would be some issue associated with a delay, say, to do something on the Orbiter, and our sense was 'How long is this going to delay if we do this?'

"So even astronauts were adding to this incredible pressure that was just crushing the team."

He said NASA had a great team but incrementally team members began short-cutting best practice, and normalising deviation from it, accepting risky practice as the norm.

In the years since Challenger turned into a fireball, those are the message Colonel Mullane's been ramming home to bosses and workers around the world - in his post-NASA career as a motivational writer and speaker.

"If it can happen to a world-class team like Nasa, it can happen to you," he warns.

Colonel Mullane said workers should stand back, examine what they were doing, make sure they were doing it by the book and follow best practice religiously.

"Because that's how you stay safe in hazardous environments."

Resist complacency

The New Zealand Refining Company sponsored Colonel Mulane's visit to New Zealand after its health and safety manager, Julian Young, heard him speak in the US.

Mr Young said it was important that workers felt able to take ownership of safety risks, look out for their mates as well as themselves, and resist complacency, especially when there had been a long period without any accidents.

"You see it in day-to-day life: people say, 'well, it's never happened to me, so we don't need that' and that's an ongoing battle.

"And with Pike River, when we lost 29 people, it would be disrespectful not to embrace the learnings of what happened that day," Mr Young said.

NZ Refining's general manager Sjoerd Post said the company had an excellent safety record, and nothing less would be acceptable given the hazards of oil refining.

He said the company held regular presentations by guest speakers to keep safety awareness high, but staff had been especially riveted by the former astronaut.

"We had young women and men coming up for selfies with Mike.

"People talking to us afterwards said they really saw the read-across from one hazardous industry to another and a number of things really resonated," Mr Post said.

Colonel Mullane will be speaking this week to school children and various business groups, at presentations organised by the co-sponsor of his visit, the Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum.

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