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Redundant Safety Features Prevent Disasters

By Jim Hall
July 18th, 2010
Hall & Associates LLC

Once again, America has suffered a disastrous oil spill, and unless our regulatory policies change from reactionary to pre-emptive, we may see a third disaster soon enough.

This time, rather than just settling for the grim and frustrating post-accident inquiries and commissions, President Barack Obama should introduce an executive order requiring safety redundancy in systems where citizens and the environment may be at risk. The next safety breakthrough should not be a disaster away.

The recent spill in the Gulf is a perfect example of why such presidential action is essential. When BP’s Deepwater Horizon suffered a catastrophic pipeline failure, the crew engaged the rig’s singular blowout preventer with disastrous results. As we all know now, this “preventer,” which is essentially an enormous blade that shears off damaged pipe to seal the leak, failed.

Because of this single-point failure, we have been mired in the most devastating environmental disaster in our history. While BP works to ensure the gushing well is plugged and to revive the Gulf, this catastrophe has again demonstrated that we must have redundant systems in place for any endeavor that puts our citizens or the environment at potential risk.

Backups on ships, autos

In 1989, when the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit the Prince William Sound and released 750,000 barrels of oil into Alaskan coastal waters, Congress acted, passing the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Among other provisions, the act enforced the eventual mandating of double-hull construction on all tankers. The purpose of the double hull was to provide a second barrier between the oil and the ocean should the outer layer be breached — a redundant safety measure.

A simple principle, it is sad that incidents like the Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon spill were needed to highlight the importance of redundancy. Redundant safety protocols are not a novel strategy in American transportation and machinery. On a smaller scale, a car has two brake lights so that if one goes out, other motorists and pedestrians can still see the second light and act accordingly. In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended a third “dome light” on all vehicles. This may seem a basic or almost intuitive example, but it speaks to a greater truth: doubling up on safety mechanisms should be required.

As a former chairman of the NTSB, I know firsthand the importance of redundant safety procedures. The board views each transportation death as a preventable tragedy and, after thorough investigations, makes recommendations for ways to ensure such events never recur. In my time as chairman, many of our recommendations focused on or were related to redundancy.

For offshore drilling, our regulators are behind the curve on safety redundancy. Unlike many American rigs, since 1993 Norway has mandated the use of acoustic triggers — essentially, wireless blowout preventers — in addition to its regular preventers on all drilling rigs. Since this upgrade, Norway’s oil operations have had no catastrophic failures and have some of the best safety records in the world. For a price of $500,000, this seems like a no-brainer for American rigs to incorporate.

Opportunities exist for simple improvements that will have real impacts on our citizens’ safety in all areas of government influence. There is no sure-fire way to eliminate risk from human endeavors, but we owe it to ourselves and our environment to limit the odds of disaster. Just as Ronald Reagan’s executive order requiring government agencies to conduct a cost-benefit analysis for every proposed rule changed the regulatory culture of Washington, so, too, can executive action by Obama have far-reaching safety benefits.

Rather than waiting for catastrophe like a reckless gambler playing the odds, an executive order should be issued to proactively apply redundancy wherever it can serve the interests of safety. We have failed twice; we cannot afford a third time.

Jim Hall is a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. He is the managing partner of Hall & Associates LLC, a safety consulting firm in Washington.


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