Crisis Management

“You’ll come to see a man learns nothing from winning.
The act of loosing, however, can elicit great wisdom.
The trick is to not make a habit of it”
     ~Uncle Henry, A Good Year

There are two ways to learn: the easy way and the hard way. The hard way is through experience, of which we all get plenty. Experience is a great teacher, but since failure is always an option, lessons can be very expensive. If the lesson involves safety, and the student is a leader, tuition can cost pain and suffering to a follower and irreparable damage to a career. 

On the other hand, nothing says you can’t learn from your successes. But for some reason, most of us learn little from success. When was the last time someone did a root cause failure analysis of a win? 

The act of losing is a different matter. 

If you’re going to gain wisdom from that, far better to learn from someone else’s misfortune. The trick is to find them and then figure out the lesson. That’s where the Managing Safety Performance News comes in handy. As authors, we’ve suffered our fair share of losses; the wisdom they elicited is something we willingly share in the interest of making the world a safer and better place.  

Our search for wisdom isn’t limited to personal experience: we scour the rest of the world for theirs, which is where this month’s lesson comes from.

The Crisis

In the event your internet and cable service have been out for most of February, a train derailment littered the outskirts of a small town in Ohio with dozens of railcars transporting industrial chemicals, including several carrying a known carcinogen, vinyl chloride. An ugly scene, but one with no immediate injuries.

Considering the possibilities, maybe not so bad after all. That is the Case for Safety.

Having been on the scene for an event quite similar to this one, I can tell you from first-hand experience there will be two serious problems to be dealt with: managing damage from the event and managing damage to relations with the public. Getting the hazard under control is tough; dealing with concerned and effected citizens is far tougher.

In this case, called upon to manage public relations have been an array of leaders in government and industry. Among them, the CEO of the railroad company, two governors, a high-ranking member of the President’s Cabinet, various state and federal environmental officials, and, yes, the mayor who actually lives there. It wouldn’t be the least bit difficult for you to find counterparts in your operation, which you need to if you want to learn an important lesson.

As to their communications, the experts and executives read from press releases, Material Safety Data Sheets, research studies, and findings from their air and water monitoring. How well did they collectively carry out their mission to explain the situation to those potentially affected and address their legitimate concerns in a way that assuages them? As one local resident put it, “I have absolutely no faith whatsoever. The answers they are giving could be true. But they aren’t delivering them in a way that’s going to make anybody feel better.”

In other words, an act of losing.

This leads to the first lesson about a safety and environmental loss such as this: no matter who you are or what you say, it’s darn near impossible to make people feel better. When it comes to sifting through technicalities and talking points, those near-neighbors were hard put to find the truth. Put yourself in their place, I doubt you could, either. 

As to what to take from this, the single best thing you can do is make darn sure not to have a crisis like this in the first place.

Wielding Influence

Picture a hostile crowd of potentially impacted citizens gathered up in a gymnasium, looking for answers, and fair to say, venting their frustrations. If you have a hard time imagining that, here’s a link that will show you exactly what it looks like. Fearing for his safety, the CEO of the railroad stayed away.

See what I mean about just not having one of these failures?

The goal of the session was to give the audience assurances that the situation is being managed effectively and their health concerns are being taken care of. Darn near impossible, to be sure, but considering that all-star lineup of leaders involved, who do you think was the one leader most likely to successfully influence that crowd?

It’s all so obvious, isn’t it?  It’s the good mayor. His or her honor lives in the village, is on a first name basis with many of those sitting in the bleachers, has been impacted the same way they have, and has a proven track record of fixing potholes and streetlights. That is what small town mayors are elected to do, and most do it very well. 

Of course, were you to ask the mayor, they’d quickly tell you they’re the least qualified to speak to the public on the subject of a health hazard like this. The technical experts would agree, and the microphone grabbers want their facetime in front of the cameras. All of which relegate the mayor to a front row seat for the spectacle that ensued.

Honestly, I seriously doubt this will be a case where “the act of losing…” will “elicit great wisdom” for any of them. But that shouldn’t stop you from gaining some. By virtue of credibility and proximity, the Mayor is the hands down winner on influence. Someone with great wisdom could have taken advantage of that power; doing so might have made a difference. 

Hence the second lesson: if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament, take advantage of those best positioned to wield influence. 

Managing Event – Or Risk?

As if dealing with the public isn’t tough enough, circling the scene in a big failure like this are those with an agenda. There are the “See, I told you so” types, whose interest is in using the event to advance their cause. As to the media, theirs is to cause clicks and ratings: that’s their business. Your failure is just a part of their business plan. 

Circling back to the first lesson – just don’t have a crisis – there’s an important aspect of this event you should understand, even if your business bears no resemblance to a railroad. It involves the principles of event and risk.

There are more than a million rail cars in service in the US; everyday thousands of trains traverse more than 400,000 miles of track. In theory, a derailment could happen anywhere and anytime. How often they actually do is a measure of risk: in this case, the probability of a derailment.

As to what that risk is, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics in an average year there are 1,704 derailments in the US. That’s upwards of 5 a day. Included in those seventeen hundred derailments are the ones involving the employer of some of those leaders gathered up the gymnasium in full lecture mode: the US government, which is also in the railroad business. They (actually, it’s we the people) own and operate Amtrack, which has its share of derailments, and theirs usually involve cars filled with people.

So, what made the Ohio derailment so different than any of the other four that statistics would suggest took place that same day?

The answer: other than the number of cars, their contents, and damage, nothing. 

The statistics suggest that most derailments aren’t that serious: if it were otherwise, you’d be hearing about ones like the one in Ohio every day. What ignites the fire of public outrage isn’t the event – a derailment – but rather the consequences of a specific event – catastrophic damage. 

But for any event, such as a derailment, there is always a range of potential consequences in play, from nothing to horrible.  Have a disaster, you get what you saw in Ohio; get a railcar or two off the tracks, hardly anyone notices.

As to what actually determines the outcome – the cause – is entirely independent of its effect. Effects are normally random; causes are seldom so.

Managing Risk

As to wisdom, once you understand the path to keeping yourself out of the middle of a crisis is to reduce the probability of an event, the path to action becomes obvious. If you’re in the rail business, you need to investigate every derailment as if it were a serious event. Head down that path, and the next thing you’ll do is to treat any condition that might have allowed for a derailment just as if it did. 

Of course, when you start down that path – to improvement – be prepared for a lot of hard work. There’s always a lot of things that go awry.  If everyone in the railroad industry were to take that approach, derailments could well become as rare an event as their counterparts in the commercial aviation business experience.

But that’s their business. 

As for you, the best thing you can do is to learn and apply these lessons to yours.

Paul Balmert
February 2023

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