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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Discussion of Hazard Prevention

LOS ANGELES, CALIF.–It is a wonder to behold–a technical safety magazine that is critical of corporate practices and run largely by corporate employees. Called “Hazard Prevention,” the bimonthly magazine is published by the Safety System Society (Box A, Newport Beach, Calif. 92663). The officers and members of the board hail from such companies as Northrup Corp., Rockwell International, Westinghouse, Hughes Aircraft and Lockheed.

As one who has read through many technical journals with their evasions of judgment and avoidances of controversial subjects, I find this all-too-little-known publication engrossing and refreshing.

The current issue features an article on exploding multi-piece truck tire rims which is introduced this way:

“Truck tire explosions have been a serious safety problem area for the past 20 years. Some production lots of truck tires have had manufacturing defects, resulting in catastrophic failure during use of about 30 percent (in fact, some tire manufacturers consider 8 percent defective to be “normal,” expected, and requiring no action relative to production processes)….

“The safe remedy for multi-piece rims was known 20 years ago, the danger was known to truckers 15 years ago, the firstattempted state ban occurred 10 years ago, and federal agencies have been actively involved…with no substantive action.”

The article describes several recent fatalities to mechanics and innocent bystanders from exploding tire rims. Such openings are unusual. Most technical analyses ignore mention of victims, much less orient the reader to their tragedy at the outset.

Another article is an insightful review of “cosmetic system safety” by a NASA engineer. It’s almost a spoof on superficial safety practices. Try this example of cosmetic safety:

“Recently, a detailed, fault-tree analysis with all the quantitative embellishments was made of the fairly simple electromechanical machine used in manufacturing. Each undesirable event was carefully drawn on the tree and each human-error-induced failure displayed. The outstanding conclusion? ‘Where practical, all of the simple repetitive functions performed by the operator should be accomplished by electric and electromechanical devices to minimize hazards due to human error.’ Ah, but the conclusions were backed by numbers, precise numbers for total system operator/machine failures with probable uncertainties (especially in the human error category) in the ball park of 2 to 5 orders of magnitude.”

Further in the journal is a short essay by technical editor George Peters on pedestrian hazards and the faulty walking environment. He said the piece was prompted by s sharp point on a hydrant that injured his knee, a number of collisions with overhead awnings and signs, and twisted ankles or uneven pavements. Sounds minor until you realize the number of pedestrians hurt each year.

A treatment of grain elevator dust explosions, a discussion of the education of system safety professionals and a fascinating overview of shipbuilding safety suggests the scope of this publication. Just as I was putting the issue down, I spotted in a list of recent safety lawsuits a notation that a Texas jury awarded a victim of a Corvair out-of-control accident the sum of $2.5 million.

Engineering societies like the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) have long been captives of their related industries. The auto companies through their employee-members of SAE set the agenda for their meetings and dominate this national organization. For example, crashworthiness of cars was not a topic for SAE technical meetings until after the 1966 auto safety law and then only in a very limited and guarded manner. Yet engineering groups like the SAE issue standards for motor vehicles which find their way into state and federal safety codes.

The Safety System Society may herald a new era of freedom for technical discussion on topics which corporations have long deemed too sensitive for public candor. Engineers and scientists employed by large business need to be able to have professional missions and activities outside their corporate offices if they are to uphold the broader, non-commercial duties of their calling.

Health and safety alerts should be sounded first by these professionals who are in a position to know early. “Hazard Prevention” provides a forum for such expressions which can lead to more clearly defined public interest roles after hours for scientists and engineers. Other technical journals with far larger circulation should take notice of their small counterpart’s example.