Save Lives by Addressing Systemic Root Causes

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a troubling trend on our nation’s airport tarmacs. Safety incidents among ground crew workers are on the rise. The article starts by describing a tragic fatality in which a ramp worker walked too close to the airplane engine before it was completely shut down. The worker was sucked into the engine and killed instantly. The article went on to describe a set of contributing variables (the proverbial holes in the Swiss cheese) that will be familiar to many readers, inside and outside the airline industry. Staff shortage was at the top of the list. Like many industries, staff was reduced during the pandemic, and airlines have struggled to find workers now that travel demands have rebounded. A related contributing factor is training. In some cases, in attempts to quickly fill desperately needed positions, airlines have shortened new-hire training. Computer-based training, a necessity during the pandemic, has often persisted despite being inadequate. A third variable was the time pressure ground crews work under to meet the tight turnaround times for aircraft.

This list of potential root causes applies to many incidents across industries. They are so common, we have written about some of them in other blogs (Too Lean for Safety, The Demise of Effective Training). The fact that they are common suggests they are worthy of attention. Of course, some issues are difficult to address. For example, in today’s labor environment staff shortages are not easily fixed. But acknowledging this is helpful in that it sharpens the focus on the variables that are controllable: in this case, the inadequate training and time pressure. Ensuring staff are trained, not just exposed to information, but truly trained in what they need to do, and then monitored to ensure they follow suit is extremely important, particularly when operations are running lean. Time pressures are inherent in many work environments, but supervisors and managers can do things to either accentuate the pressure or reassure workers that safety is of primary importance. It’s also essential to acknowledge that workers often put undue pressure on themselves in the name of doing a good job. Again, there are things leaders can do to offset that pressure if they acknowledge its influence on the safety culture.

Addressing these common systemic root causes so that workers are set up to work safely will go much further to prevent recurrence than traditional reactions like discipline and retraining. Contact ADI to learn more about strategies for addressing root causes.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.