GUEST POST FROM GITFINGER:
The Steam Path.
Being people, people are not very good at handling dangerous things of their own making. Because the dangers are of their own making they become defensive about them, protective, in all sorts of ways that reduce their defences and protections against the dangers. The more dangerous (‘safety critical’), and so the more politically sensitive the industry you work in the more you have to defend it, protect it, and keep its secrets, and the more you have to be one of the gang, tough-minded, unflappable, fearful only of showing fear. You downplay the dangers, you overplay your skills, you make a joke of the failures that occur, especially if they are not your fault. You confine your fear to fear of the mighty contempt of your colleagues that will be yours always if you break ranks, risk jobs, if you look like a coward by showing so much as mild concern.
What would happen, say, if you were working in one part of one plant belonging to a safety critical industry and something that just wasn’t right happened in your particular working space? Say you’re working in some part of a plant that has daily and nightly dealings with high pressure steam, that depends ultimately on steam, that has the uses of steam at its very core. Say that there shouldn’t be any steam where you are working today but steam there is, suddenly, without warning, great, near-scalding billowings of it.
In the training and in the manuals you have been told to alert some higher up. Squeal, in other words, scream to mummy, drop someone it in it maybe but, much worse, show that you can’t handle difficulties yourself. So you find a wheel that drives a valve and you spin that wheel or maybe another few wheels, as many wheels as you have to spin until the steam stops coming and just goes somewhere else. There is your result and your contribution to the smooth running of the organisation, problem solved.
Now move to a few moments later. Suppose now that you are someone else working somewhere else. There should be no steam where you are working today but steam there is, suddenly, without warning, great, near-scalding billowings of it. This time there are no handy wheels that drive valves. But, this time, you have a giant door that opens to the world. You also know where there is a giant electric fan. You and three others just like you open the door and manoeuvre the fan so that the steam that shouldn’t be there is blown out into the wide blue-grey yonder and so to beyond your concern. There is your result and your contribution to the smooth running of the organisation, problem solved.
The management need never know and if even if they do find out it is not in their interests to advertise the event. Not if they’re managing a safety-critical industry. The public might worry that the same mentality would prevail no matter what the problem was. As it is, the world need never know any more than that things near you were a little steamier than usual that day. The trouble is, the greater the danger, the more those handling it need that mentality.