When one thinks of the disasters some of the worse images imaginable come to mind. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis, famine, all bring to mind horrific and tragic events. Still, other disasters are man-made. Nuclear, aviation and mining disasters always make international headlines. Can we learn from our past, mitigate the impact of natural disasters, prevent man-made fatalities and make the world a safer place?

Let us take a look at a few of the most notable disasters and some of the industries they were in and see what we can do better:

Utilities Industry Disasters

The utilities industry has been at the forefront of disasters. Since the 1940’s the threat of a nuclear disaster has instilled fear among scientist the general public throughout the world resulting in global protest, initiatives for alternative energy sources and epic Hollywood movies such as “The China Syndrome”. There is good reason for concern as nuclear disasters are not only expensive but potentially threaten the entire globe. For example:

  • Chernobyl Ukraine – April 26, 1986. The most expensive disaster in history resulting from an explosion at nuclear power plant at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Effects included 50% of the Ukraine contaminated in some way, over 200,000 deaths from long term cancers and other illnesses in addition to over $200 billion for cleanup, resettlement and victim compensation. The cause(s): Safety rules not followed, operator error, plant design issues, massive power fluctuations.
  • Three Mile Island – March 28, 1979. A partial nuclear meltdown occurred when uranium fuel rods started to liquefy. The accident which occurred is considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in US history. No deaths were reported, but social unrest skyrocketed with protests as fears of a full meltdown captured the country.The cause:
    “A combination of poor instrumentation design and operator error, along with the extremely common problem of stuck open power operated relief valves.. A loss of proper feedwater incident occurred and the reactor tripped; a stuck open power operated relief valve incident occurred (in the classical fashion); operators failed to isolate the PORV, inhibited auxiliary coolant pumps, and inhibited HP ECC due to a misinterpretation of instrument readings.”
    Source: Wikipedia – Nuclear and radiation accidents
  • Yucca Flat – December 18, 1970. Immediately following an underground nuclear test explosion, a plug sealing the shaft from the surface failed causing an explosion releasing radioactive material into the atmosphere exposing 86 workers. The cause: a failed plug.

Aviation Industry DisastersFrom the Hindenburg to the space shuttle, aviation accidents have always made headlines primarily due to the low survival rates (1 in 3) of accident victims and the glamour that has always surrounded aviators. The world watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded just seconds after takeoff. Mechanical failures have accounted for approximately 20% of all aviation related disasters.

 Total Pilot Error
 Mechanical Failure
Modified from Causes of Fatal Accidents by Decade

Fortunately the reality of being killed in an airplane crash is less than 1 in 11 million. Some of the most notable disasters include:

  • Space Shuttle Challenger – January 28, 1986. 73 seconds after takeoff on a cold morning the shuttle exploded. Total costs of disaster including the loss of the crew and ship exceeded $5.5 billion (today’s dollars). The cause: A faulty O-ring was officially labeled as the cause. The cold temperatures had caused the O-ring to fail sealing one of the joints correctly. The result was pressurized gas leaking the outside ultimately causing the liquid hydrogen payload to explode.
  • American Airlines Flight 191 – May, 25, 1979 – The crash resulted in the largest loss of life in US air history (273 people). An engine separated from the wing causing collateral damage as the engine separation had severed the hydraulic lines that controlled the aircraft’s leading-edge wing slats. In addition, the engine ripped 3 feet of the leading edge of the wing with it, including the hydraulic, and electrical power supplies to the captain’s instruments including the stall warning, slats disagreement, and stick shaker.The cause:
    “The findings of the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed the probable cause to be attributable to damage to the left wing engine pylon that occurred during an earlier engine change at American Airlines’ aircraft maintenance facility. The pylon was damaged due to an engine removal procedure… American Airlines was fined by the United States government $500,000 for improper maintenance procedures.”
    >Source: Wikipedia – American Airlines Flight 191
  • Japan Airlines – August 12, 1985. Crashed occurred shortly after takeoff resulting in 520 casualties. The cause: The crashed was blamed on a rupture of a rear bulkhead.

Mining Industry Disasters

The history of mining disasters is much longer than utility or aviation and began over 300,000 years ago during the stone age. Surface mining and sub-surface mining have been crucial to the modern world for supplying minerals and other natural resources. Future mining of the ocean floors and underwater mining camps is sure to bring additional risks. Most deaths according to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are a result of explosions or fires. NIOSH recorded 726 disasters since the mid-1800’s in the US.

  • Honkeiko Colliery, China – April 26, 1942. The worst recorded mining disaster in history as 1549 miners died after a gas explosion in one of the coal mine shafts. Cause: Gas Explosion
  • Monongah, West Virginia – December 6, 1907 – The worst mining disaster in US history occurred when 2 shafts at a Consolidated Coal Company mine exploded. 361 miners died. Cause: Methane gas buildup after the ventilation system was disabled.
  • Buckhannon, WVA January 2, 2006 – 12 people died after an explosion. The mine had a long history of failing inspection issues and not performing inspections. Cause: Methane gas ignited during a storm.

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters have occurred throughout time and will continue unabated long after we all finish our lives. Damage from natural disasters can range from entire cultures being wiped out to devastating structural damage and enormous repair and replacement costs. Everyone knows that you can’t beat Mother Nature. However, you can do some things to mitigate the impact of storms and other non-total devastating events. The cause of the event is not an issue. The concern is how can we prepare for the worst. Some events that could have been prepared better for include:

  • Hurricane Katrina – August 2005. With over 1800 dead and an estimated $150 billion economic impact, hurricane Katrina demonstrated the awesome power of mother nature. Katrina also brought to light shortfalls in the preparations made in advance of the storm and reactions after the storm. The concern for the levies breaking is not the issue here. They were simply inadequate for a direct hit of this magnitude. However, To help minimize damage businesses could have made sure facilities were weathertight with regard to water and wind damage. Preventive maintenance should have occurred on all items of value much like the weatherproofing of equipment stored for the winter.
  • The Storm of The Century – March 1993. Affecting most of the eastern seaboard of the US, over 300 lives were lost. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, heavy snows, blizzard like snow drifts caught many business and people unprepared. Best results for businesses were those that had emergency shutdown procedures and had done preventive maintenance on equipment and assets that were exposed to the elements.
  • Earthquake – San Francisco, CA 1906. Millions of earthquakes occur every year but most go unnoticed because they are very small or occur in remote areas. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is a notable exception. 80% of the city was destroyed, over 3,000 people dead and damage was estimated at over $6.5 billion (modern day). In an any area known for seismic activity, inspection and preventive maintenance can identify structural weaknesses, loose joints, weathered or corroded bridges and other items that can be shaken apart if not adequately maintained.

Learned LessonsWe live in a fragile world at the mercy of Mother Nature and in a never ending battle to protect our assets from the elements. Compounding the struggle is man’s ability to make matters worse. Accidents happen every day and fortunately very few turn into major catastrophes. What can we do to better to prepare ourselves and the businesses in order to minimize the impact of a disaster or perhaps prevent a disaster? A few solutions are:

  1. Proper Maintenance and Inspections. Make sure proper maintenance and inspections are being performed on all assets not just the expensive ones. Too many of the disasters described above were the result of minor part failures, poor inspection practices and poor maintenance. A stuck valve or a clogged ventilation system is not an acceptable reason for a catastrophic explosion.
  2. Make Maintenance a Requirement and Not An Option. Too many companies cut back on maintenance when revenue are down when in reality a good CMMS based solution will increase your efficiencies and lower your labor cost. It doesn’t require great math skills to figure out the maintenance cost savings for American Airlines was only a fraction of the total disaster cost resulting from Flight 191. In addition, methodical preventive maintenance such as waterproofing and tightening down assets susceptible to wind damage means more time to prepare for natural disasters.
  3. Listening and Training. Not all disasters can be attributed to mechanical failure alone. The Challenger and Katrina disasters are great examples of what can happen when employees, consultants and other parties raise concerns about asset integrity or potential problems. Potential problems with the O-rings on the Challenger and the integrity of levies had been discussed prior to the catastrophes occurring. Chernobyl was a perfect example of a lack of training combined with design and asset unreliability.

Tell us what you have learned from the past and how you are prepared for the upcoming decade.