Thursday, June 17, 2010

The O-Ring Memo

 By Charles Moncrief

Some 50 days into what’s becoming known as “The Gulf Oil Spill” we hear of safety compromises by all of those involved in the original drilling project. According to one source, BP has been accused of some 740 safety violations in 2009 and 2010, compared to one by Exxon Mobil and 8 by Shell Oil. It’s hard to be objective when such loss of life and livelihood come at the result of negligence. It’s even harder to be objective in the face of expected increases in government regulations, which will translate to higher prices for motor fuels and everything in the economy that gets shipped.

It is useless to cast blame until we’ve made it through the crisis. Nonetheless, I’m dismayed that once again we turned our backs on “the O-Ring Memo,” a tool that could have prevented most if not all of our current crisis.  

The “O-Ring Memo” should have kept the space shuttle Challenger from exploding seventy-four seconds into its launch and killing its seven occupants on January 28, 1986. Roger Boisjoly, an engineer for Morton Thiokol, Inc., in July of 1985 had written a confidential memo to his company’s engineering vice president “… to insure that management is fully aware of the seriousness of the current O-ring erosion problem...” [from M.M. Jennings, Case Studies in Business Ethics, 2nd ed. (West Publishing, 1996)]. The day before the accident Boisjoly and another Thiokol engineer unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the launch. Although NASA and Thiokol knew that the launch-time temperature was ten degrees below the accepted safe minimum, the engineers were considered insignificant by management standards. 
Partly due to Boisjoly’s memo, litigation attorneys all over the nation rejoiced. 

The “O-Ring Memo” should have kept a downtown Minneapolis bridge from collapsing and killing 13 people when it collapsed August 1, 2007. At least one NTSB investigator referred to “under-designed” gusset plates. Within a year the “O-Ring Memo” surfaced, written during the design process by some insignificant engineer at URS Corp., the contractor that built (or warranted) the bridge. The memo criticized the gusset plate design, and in the legal community a good time was had by all. 

While engineers are at the bottom rung of any ladder when it comes to credibility, the cost of ignoring them can sometimes never be recovered. “Nerds” make good comedy fodder with their pocket protectors and funny ways of talking. The late Walter Cronkite spoke of NASA’s successful launches as “great scientific achievements” and the unsuccessful ones as “engineering failures.” 

But the engineer has counterparts when it comes to society’s disregard. Let’s notice who else gets short shrift when it comes to credibility. 

The abused child is expelled from school for accusing her father, a respected member of his church or community. 

The seminary student remains silent when molested by a clergyman on the short list to be elected bishop. 

The wife’s protest is dismissed because her husband is popular in the business community and a contributor to numerous charities. 

Among victims of abuse the equivalent of the “O-Ring Memo” is the Evidentiary Abuse Affidavit.” The affidavit contains critical information to help victims document their experiences and create a permanent legal record. Its purpose is to insure that instances of abuse are recorded for future use in the legal system. This relatively new tool has already changed some lives, and it is on its way to saving countless others. 

The “Evidentiary Abuse Affidavit,” just as the “O-Ring Memo,” has far-reaching implications and is relatively simple to prepare. As far down on the food chain as an engineer sits, a small action can have a monumental effect. And an person, no matter how insignificant the abuser has made her feel, also has the power to perform a small action with an effect just as monumental. 

Grace and Peace,


Editor's note:  Just as our cemeteries are filling because of the oversight of something so simple as an "O-Ring" they are filling even faster because of the effects of domestic violence.  The Evidentiary Abuse Affidavit is something that has been compared to a paper clip, something so simple that has far reaching capabilities to enhance every day life.
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