By Matthew Kleiman, CEO of Cumulus Digital Systems
In recent weeks, a string of catastrophic industrial accidents have dominated the news cycle. A train derailment with hazardous chemicals in Ohio caused widespread home evacuations, then another train derailment in Ohio made headlines just this weekend. In California, a fire at a power station caused a widespread blackout for residents.
With multiple accidents in quick succession, the media and public alike have been quick to question whether these incidents are somehow related. When disaster strikes, many are quick to assume a nefarious cause, such as sabotage or a cyber attack.
These speculations of “malicious intent” often prove to be incorrect. As someone who has spent the last decade and a half working on safety critical systems across aerospace, energy, railroads, and data centers, my career has become centrally focused on preventing these accidents. And while there is something connecting these events, it is not malicious.
An industrial safety epidemic
The answer instead lies in the industry’s inconsistent application of best safety practices and technologies, and the public’s failure to demand more from industry executives and regulators.
The unfortunate fact is that industrial accidents are all too common, yet they only rarely make the news. Almost every day there’s a new industrial fire, leak, or explosion that goes largely unnoticed in the media. For example, there are approximately 1,000 train derailments each year. Instead of drawing widespread attention and concern, accidents like these have become normalized as the background noise of an industrialized society.
Learning from the aviation industry
It does not have to be this way. We know better performance is possible because there are sectors that have achieved consistent safety results, while operating with high risks day in and day out.
The aviation industry is the perfect example. Hurling oneself through the upper atmosphere in a thin aluminum tube at close to the speed of sound should be an unbelievably scary experience. Yet millions of us do this every day without a second thought. Commercial air travel is widely considered the safest form of public transportation.
However, flying was not always this safe. Commercial airplane accidents were more common just a few decades ago. As recently as 1996, the U.S. airline industry suffered one fatality for every 2 million departures, resulting in more than 350 deaths that year, according to The Wall Street Journal. By 2021, the rate had dropped more than 80% to one death for every 120 million departures. During the same period, the total number of workplace injuries in the U.S. dropped a more modest 15%, from 6,202 in 1996 to 5,250 in 2018.
The airlines achieved such dramatic safety improvements because society decided that even one accidental death in an airplane crash was unacceptable, Regulators, manufacturers, and operators worked together to develop, implement, and enforce vigorous engineering and operational standards. Today, accidents are so rare that when one does happen, it dominates the headlines for days. Any hint of negligence or malfeasance leads to weeks of headlines, Congressional investigations, criminal and civil penalties, and Netflix documentaries (see, for example, the reaction to the 737 MAX disasters in 2019).
Normalizing industrial safety
Other industries do not attract the same level of attention from political leaders or the media. When an airplane crashes, we all put ourselves in the place of the victims and think, “there but for the grace of God go I.” We demand immediate corrective action out of a very real fear that we could be next.
When there is a fire in a refinery or a train derailment, on the other hand, we may feel compassion for the victims and their families, but we do not put ourselves in the shoes of the refinery worker, the unlucky bystander, or the community subjected to toxic emissions. Those dangers are too abstract for us to internalize. Society collectively shrugs and moves on.
Thus, we have normalized poor safety and quality in heavy industry because most of us do not see ourselves as likely potential victims. The consequences of normalization speak for themselves. Nearly one third of work in industrial maintenance and construction is performed incorrectly, resulting in costly rework. More than 1 million construction workers are injured or killed each year in workplace accidents. Fugitive emissions from leaks release thousands of megatonnes of CO2 equivalents into the atmosphere each year. These numbers have been generally consistent for decades. The work of OSHA and industry safety initiatives have only moved the needle on the margins.
We must expect more. We cannot and should not accept the status quo. Industrial accidents can affect anyone, anywhere. Yet just like we know how to make air travel safe, we also know how to build and operate industrial facilities safely. Accidents are not failures of physics, they are failures to follow best practices.
Failures should no longer be accepted as a “cost of doing business”. The consequence of failing to implement best available safety and quality measures is severe. Only the denormalization of industrial accidents will force the cultural and technological changes required to stop them.
Matthew Kleiman Bio
Matt Kleiman is the co-founder & CEO of Cumulus Digital Systems, a connected worker platform that ensures mission-critical work across the energy, infrastructure, and construction sectors is done right the first time, every time. Previously, Matt spent nearly a decade working at companies like Shell and Draper to further digitalization across the energy and aerospace fields.
His commitment to driving innovation for the industry has landed him recognition as a BuiltWorlds Adoption Leader and a Maverick Award Winner. Matt can be contacted by email at email@example.com.