How can we prevent organisational accidents?

Reading the commentary, deep and wide, that has flowed from the saga of the certification and introduction to service of the Boeing 737 MAX there’s palpable frustration. A large volume of analysis and evidence is now in the public domain. It has taken a long time and the persistence of many good people to bring out the results of investigation to the fore.  Frustration stems from knowing that the factors involved in the MAX saga are not new or unique. They have been seen far too often in fatal accidents and serious incidents right across the globe.

One common reaction is to place all the blame on the corrupting effect of large amounts of money. The line “follow the money” became common usage as a result of the 1976 movie “All The President’s Men[1]” despite the theory that it came from elsewhere.

“Follow the money” is good advice for investigators whether they be journalists, air accident investigators or police detectives. It’s certainly one of the known motivators for people to circumvent or disregard rules and regulations.

I could go on to talk about corporate liability[2]. There’s often a distinct lack of capability or inclination to hold large corporations, and the individuals running them liable for gross negligence and unethical behaviours. Another problem with this is that this is the button to press after the event. Yes, strong corporate liability laws rigorously applied can have a deterrent effect. However, the calculation made by those people at the source of the problem is often that of slim likelihood of failure or getting caught or, as with banks during the financial crisis, being too big to fail.

Although all the lessons learned from the analysis of organisational accidents is a good route to prevention of future accidents, that just one part of the puzzle.

Another common reaction is to reach for the human factors’ textbooks. There’s absolutely no doubt that human action is at the root of the events discussed. It takes people, and groups of people to choose to do the wrong thing knowing of the risks they take. Indefensible actions done with the awareness of an organisation are more than just process or procedural failure.

I started writing with the assumption that organisational accidents are preventable and must be prevented. This is to say that zero accidents are achievable. Yet, organisational accidents keep happening and prevention keeps failing. All be it, relative to the volume of global activity, a rare occurrence in civil aviation.

Maybe it’s better to accept that the motivations of a minority of people are to act unethically for personal gain and to take unacceptable risks. The larger problem is the failure of a greater number of people to act when they become aware of that behaviour.

In the cockpit pilots are taught to challenge bad decisions. Maybe we need to teach people how to challenge effectively.

[1] The movie takes protagonists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein through their quest to figure out the suspicious acts around US President Richrd Nixon.


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