A Patent on Safety

By Earl F. Weener, PhD 

Member Weener in Soldotna, AKSafety, as we increasingly see, is a global initiative.  Our lives and our problems cross cultural and geographic boundaries.  Solutions to these problems, therefore, require a similar level of interdependence and cooperation.  One example is how the global community has attempted to improve food safety through the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI).  After several high-profile recalls, quarantines, and negative publicity about the food industry, in 2000, global food companies came together to conduct benchmarking and harmonize food safety standards by developing the GFSI.  As part of this initiative, food safety professionals from more than 60 companies meet at the Global Food Safety Conference, where I recently had the opportunity to speak.

Where do food safety and transportation safety intersect?  The answer lies in the lessons learned from almost 50 years of independent investigations of transportation accidents.  Challenged by the number of recurring incidents involving food outbreaks, the global food community is seeking new approaches to better communicate and mitigate the risks associated with the production and transportation of food.  At the Food Safety Conference, I was specifically asked to address  the benefits of having an independent organization like the National Transportation Safety Board conduct comprehensive investigations of transportation accidents, and how we ensure corrective actions are taken to prevent recurrence.

Frequently, our investigations start with launching a “Go-Team” composed of a Board Member, Investigator-in-Charge, Technical Specialists, Public Affairs Officers, and Family Affairs Specialists to conduct on-scene activities and provide factual information to families, media, and the public at large.  Transparency is key:  we share what we know when we know it; and stick to factual information, following with analysis when the pertinent facts are well established  We also employ a process, referred to as the party process, that enables organizations with specific expertise relevant to the accident, to assist the NTSB in fact gathering.

During the accident investigation and through the party process, various detailed reports are prepared along with other evidentiary information, and placed in a docket for public access.  From these materials, a final report on the accident is prepared for consideration and approval by the NTSB Board Members. This final report includes not only the facts and analysis from the accident investigation, but critical to the safety community as a whole, it includes a statement of probable cause and recommendations to prevent a recurrence of the accident.  Based on the credibility of these recommendations, the NTSB provides a platform for broad communication to the various modal industries, and advocates for the necessary changes to improve safety.       

As I learned at the Food Safety Conference, the global food community faces a number of challenges with recurring events as well.  I commend the GFSI for recognizing more can be done to address such repeated food outbreaks, and applaud their efforts to look outside of their community for solutions.  Through the independent nature of our investigative process, and by our collaborative party approach to examining the facts, the NTSB’s proven track record of improving transportation safety provides a model worth emulating.  Moreover, for over 20 years, we have met with our counterparts in other countries through the International Transportation Safety Association (ITSA).  Through ITSA, we can share trends and lessons learned.  Organizations like NTSB, ITSA, and the GFSI demonstrate how adoption of  a collaborative and team approach can be effective.  In the end, we need to recognize that no one holds a patent on safety.

Earl F. Weener, Ph.D., took the oath of office as a Member of the National Transportation Safety Board on June 30, 2010.

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