Fly me to the moon - but safely, please!

Would you consider a career where you have a one in 50 chance of being killed? Not likely! But those are the odds that astronauts in NASA's space shuttle program face every time they blast off into space.

Notoriously dangerous work such as mining - with a fatality rate of one in 3,900 - seems awfully tame in comparison to the astronaut's workday! And have you ever heard of astronauts being just injured on the job? Nope, they seem to die or survive. I'm thinking there must be big danger pay for the space suit set.

My mind goes to space travel because:
• It's North American Occupational Safety & Health (NAOSH) Week: May 6 - 12
• The focus of NAOSH Week this year is Transportation Safety
• The highest-risk mode of transportation is space travel

Two space shuttles have been destroyed since the first launch in 1981, resulting in the deaths of the crews of both missions:

The Challenger shuttle disintegrated 73 seconds after takeoff in January 1986, killing seven astronauts. The Columbia shuttle disintegrated upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere in 2003, also killing seven astronauts.

Averting disaster was possible; NASA's safety culture was weak

What's even more tragic is that both the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger disaster and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that both shuttle tragedies could have been averted if a stronger safety culture had been in place at NASA.

The o-rings had nearly failed on a shuttle mission one year before the Challenger disaster, but these findings were generally ignored. When the Challenger was set to launch on an unusually cold day, NASA was warned not to launch the mission by Morton Thiokol (MTI), the makers of the o-rings.

However, under intimidation from NASA management, MTI backed away from its original position, downgrading their findings to "inconclusive." That was enough for NASA to dismiss the warnings and go ahead with the launch - with tragic results.

NASA apparently didn't learn from the Challenger disaster; its lax attitude towards safety persisted and led to the Columbia tragedy. Insulating material foam had broken off the external tank soon after takeoff, damaging the damaging the protective carbon heat shielding panels on the left wing. NASA considered it an acceptable risk.

Does your transportation fatality even count as a workplace death?

Now that you've rethought your dream of flying to the moon, don't forget to be careful on the roads on this planet. Transportation accidents on land continue to be the leading cause of workplace deaths (43 percent) in the US (2005 stats). The economic impact of all transportation accidents in the U.S. that year was $230.6 billion, according to ASSE.

Just to complicate things... not all transportation fatalities are counted as workplace deaths; that depends on which country you live in. For example, most nations include road traffic accidents during work hours in their stats (but not the UK); deaths during the commute to/from work are excluded from fatality counts (except in seven countries). Go figure!

 

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