Prepare for the worst

I cannot believe this is happening. That's what I was thinking while I watched television news coverage of New Orleans under water after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast. The scenario that played out before our eyes, however, had been discussed for many years. It became clear that the city's risk management and risk improvement practices were either woefully inadequate or completely ignored.

I cannot believe this is happening.” That's what I was thinking while I watched television news coverage of New Orleans under water after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast.

The scenario that played out before our eyes, however, had been discussed for many years. It became clear that the city's risk management and risk improvement practices were either woefully inadequate or completely ignored.

Fleets can learn from this sad situation. We should all have safety-related risk management and risk improvement practices in place to protect us from the consequences of a Katrina-like scenario.

According to the science of risk management, we should consider three factors when evaluating disaster scenarios: vulnerability, trigger points and consequences.

New Orleans was vulnerable because so much of it is built below sea level, it's located adjacent to major bodies of water, and it's situated in an area that is prone to hurricanes. The trigger point was a Category 4 hurricane striking the area, causing huge waves to overrun the city's levee and floodwall protection system. The consequence was the disaster that unfolded before our eyes.

When applying the principles of risk management planning and improvement in our own industry, the first thing we should do is to consider a range of “unthinkable” scenarios that we might encounter in the course of doing business.

Here's one that should be on the list. A fatigued and “over hours” truck driver, who has three speeding violations in the preceding 12 months, skirts a closed rail crossing and strikes and derails an Amtrak passenger train, killing 10 and injuring 88. The collision results in about $15 million worth of property damage to sophisticated train equipment.

In the trucking scenario described above, areas of vulnerability were that the fleet had no effective system for preventing abuses of HOS rules, and that the minimum driver eligibility criteria were inadequate. The trigger point occurred when the fatigued driver made a faulty rail grade crossing decision, opting to try and “beat” rather than wait for the fast approaching Amtrak passenger train. Consequences were the deaths of 10 people and millions of dollars in personal and property damage awards.

This “unimaginable” scenario in fact took place in Bourbonnnais, IL, on March 15, 1999. Ironically, the train involved was known as the “City of New Orleans.”

While the risk improvement actions for New Orleans are no doubt incredibly complex, that is not the case for the trucking company. First, it should have implemented more effective HOS monitoring and control systems. Second, driver standards should have been higher, and better systems to identify and manage at-risk behavior should have been in place. All of these things represent common industry practice.

I urge you to use this risk management approach to evaluate whether your company is vulnerable to any Katrina-like truck safety disasters. Think about what kind of triggers could set such a disaster in motion, and consider the consequences. Could they result in closing your company?

Most importantly, I urge you to implement effective risk improvement actions. We've all just witnessed that the unthinkable does happen.




Jim York is the manager of Zurich Service Corp.'s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.

TAGS: News
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