Editor’s Comments: Luck Is Wonderful, but Don’t Press It

May 1, 2010

No doubt the details of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster are fresh enough in your mind to recall some of the horror you felt when you first heard the news. With the toll standing at 25 dead and likely to climb to 29, with time running out for four miners trapped belowground as I sit down to write, we are witnessing the kind of catastrophe that all who operate in risk-filled environments know is lurking in the shadows ready to strike.

It’s far too early to assign a cause for the explosion-a buildup of methane is the most logical suspect-but for now any of a hundred factors could be involved that the forensic folks will pore over before a blue-ribbon panel issues a report that lawyers will toil over for at least another decade.

“Well,” you say, “that’s mining, not construction,” and you’re right insofar as the particulars are concerned. Yet when you look beyond the explosion in a confined space, you might see the specter of a larger issue…that of complacency. It’s our constant companion, at its deadliest when we least expect it.

If there’s one thing in this world I really, truly know, it’s complacency. I see where I’ve been subject to it to greater and lesser extents every day of my life, though I don’t recall giving it much thought before being shackled onto the starboard catapult of the USS Valley Forge, following the sixth arrested landing that was the final hurdle in my quest for the coveted “Wings of Gold.”

The aircraft was a venerable F-9F-8 Cougar, the swept-wing version of the Korea-era Panther, the very essence of what several generations had come to expect from Bethpage, NY’s revered Grumman “Iron Works.” Simple, rugged, and unassuming in comparison with the heart-stopping array of fighters flown by the Air Force, the Cougar handled the demotion from frontline carrier fighter to incubator of clueless students with the grace of the thoroughbred she was.

So here was I, a glittering jackass, slamming the throttle to the stop with the bravado of a battle-hardened warrior and giving the catapult officer my very best “Smilin’ Jack” salute that indicated my readiness for takeoff…only I had made one slight omission in the performance of my checklist. Instead of setting the elevator trim to its takeoff (nearly neutral) position, I left it in its nose-high approach setting. Thus the instant the catapult fired and I was thrown back into the seat from the acceleration, the nose snapped high into the air, launching me off the bow in a stall.

“The airplane’s broken,” I told myself, envisioning a very short trip to the water where I would be overrun and keelhauled by the boat.

Then over the radio came the laconic voice of the Air Boss sitting up in Pri-Fly. “Push the nose over you idiot, then reset the trim.”

I did, and it worked, but all the way back to the base I agonized over the world-class tail chewing that surely awaited me. Along with that, however, I recognized the roles that both complacency and luck had played in the episode, and the fact that whereas luck was ephemeral, complacency was always and forever there.

As it was, when I got back, my instructor had taped a trim button to my locker, suggesting that I take it home and paste it next to the toilet. This I did…and I’ve carried it with me from toilet to toilet ever since, just to remind me that pride, arrogance, and complacency have no business in even the least challenging of my activities.

So what does this have to do with you and your business?

It’s about us and the traps we set for ourselves through our pride, arrogance, and complacency. As I realized then and from the all-too-many near misses since, it’s nice to have luck as a companion, but it’s not a bankable commodity you can write a check against.

It’s one thing to take shortcuts when you’re on your own, but when it comes to the safety of those who place their trust in your judgment, it’s altogether different. In that arena, there’s no substitute for establishing procedures-like the takeoff checklist I ignored at the very time that the margin for error was at its narrowest-and rigorously seeing that they are followed by all hands…including yourself.