Normalizing Deviant Safety Practices Is an Accident Waiting To Happen

Interested in Safety?

Get Safety articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Safety + Get Alerts

In January 1986 a significant and tragic event happened that was completely preventable. The space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after taking off, killing all seven on board. It didn’t have to happen.

In her book The Challenger Launch Decision, sociologist Dr. Diane Vaughn coined the phrase “normalization of deviance.” It refers to why NASA allowed the launch to happen even though there was overwhelming evidence pointing to what would eventually happen.

The term “normalization of deviance” means the gradual process through which unacceptable practices or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behavior is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organization.

The Rogers Commission found NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes had been key contributing factors to the accident, with the agency violating its own safety rules. NASA managers had known since 1977 that contractor Morton-Thiokol's design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings, but they had failed to address this problem properly. NASA managers also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors.

The list of disasters attributed to this term is unfortunately a dark eye on the face of America’s workplace history. Seven years later, NASA had failed to learn from the Challenger explosion, and it happened again with the Columbia shuttle as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Heat shields failed and again all seven on board perished. It is also the reason for the BP oil spill where 11 died and 17 were injured. Just watch the movie Deep Water Horizon and it’s clear that accepting deviant behavior as normal is a bad way to go.

So, how does this apply to the water and wastewater industry? When employees stray from following safe practices it can lead to bad habits. At first, these deviations may seem small and unnoticeable. They may even have positive outcomes like getting the job done sooner. These deviations or shortcuts will become the norm. They can also be transferred to other employees through “training” and before you know it this behavior becomes prevalent throughout the organization.

An example of this can be not clearing the area around a trench of items like shovels and pieces of pipe. The OSHA regulation clearly states that there must be at least 2 feet of clearance around the edges of a trench to prevent tripping over these items and falling into the trench. Sometimes years of ignoring simple but vital safety regulations can have devastating impacts, such as a trench collapsing which still too often comes up in news headlines.

An incident like this may be smaller in scale than a NASA shuttle explosion, but it is no less tragic to the victims and their families.

In order to prevent such occurrences from happening, job supervisors and employees must know the safety standards and apply them every time. They must also be willing to speak up when someone is deviating from safety standards. Employees must not be willing to accept this behavior as it puts their own safety and the safety of others at risk. Let’s get the job done, but let’s do it safely every time.

Ronnie Freeman is safety director for Mount Pleasant (South Carolina) Waterworks and Safety Committee chair for the Water Environmental Association of South Carolina.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.