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Safety attitudes need more fixing, Davis-Besse bosses, workers told

05/03/03

John Funk and John Mangels
Plain Dealer Reporters

The "safety culture" at the troubled Davis-Besse nuclear plant has improved in recent months, but its workers and managers still don't think learning from mistakes is very important, a new study shows.

Workers remain unsure whether their bosses really value safety over production. A "them vs. us" attitude pervades the Toledo-area facility. Some senior managers don't think plant personnel "have what it takes to get the job done." And employees are worried about whether Davis-Besse's owner will pull the plug on the plant.

Those sharply critical findings come from a team of consultants hired by plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. to figure out how well Davis-Besse is doing to restore the plant's deeply damaged safety culture. The consultants concluded that there is still much work to be done to ensure a permanent commitment to preventing accidents and protecting the public.

"The team believes that not all characteristics are present at the Davis-Besse station to ensure the long-term promotion of a positive safety culture," wrote a team of consultants headed by industrial psychologist Sonja Haber of New York City.

The study is based on in-plant observations, a survey of 80 percent of Davis-Besse's 830 employees and in-depth interviews with 88 staffers. Researchers visited the plant in February, wrote their report in March and presented it to the company last month. The special Nuclear Regulatory Commission panel overseeing the repair of Davis-Besse got copies this week.

FirstEnergy must prove to the NRC panel that the safety culture at Davis-Besse has substantially improved to get permission to restart the reactor.

Neither the agency nor the company would say yesterday what impact the report might have on that decision.

A senior FirstEnergy executive said this week, before the report was made public, that he believed Davis-Besse would be ready to restart in eight to 12 weeks.

The candor of the company-commissioned study surprised one expert.

"It's much tougher than I expected," said Paul Blanch, a nuclear plant veteran who dealt with safety culture issues at the Millstone reactor in Connecticut in the 1990s. "They have a long way to go. For Millstone, it took us more than two years for a degraded safety culture to recover to where the NRC found it acceptable to restart."

Both the NRC and the company believe the absence of a safety culture at Davis-Besse was at the root of the lapses that crippled the 26-year-old reactor.

A rust hole had developed for years unnoticed in the reactor's lid, reaching the size of a pineapple by the time a worker accidentally discovered it in March 2002.

FirstEnergy's own investigation into the causes of the unprecedented corrosion concluded that plant managers had put electricity production over safety and often did not address safety concerns, even when workers brought them up.

The NRC sent its own team of safety-culture experts to Davis-Besse early last month to begin reviewing the company's efforts, including the new report, said spokeswoman Viktoria Mitlyng.

The agency's inspection is "open-ended," said Mitlyng, and the team has not set a date when it will leave. Its preliminary findings will be presented at a public meeting, she said.

FirstEnergy has made substantial progress since it began efforts to improve Davis-Besse's safety culture late last summer, said spokesman Todd Schneider. The company even halted repair work for a day so employees could take part in a "case study" of how the rust hole happened.

The consultants' report is only a "snapshot" in time, he said, and doesn't reflect continuing development, including creating a management position last week that will focus on safety culture. The report also points out positives, such as the creation of an infrastructure of meetings, newsletters and training classes to convey that safety is valued.

But the report found that the company hasn't been able yet to make broad, consistent changes in attitudes among workers and managers. For example:

Management gives "mixed messages" about its commitment to safety over production. Workers are still being told they must get jobs done quickly and less completely than they would like, such as tightening a leaky valve rather than replacing its gaskets.

Decision-making at Davis-Besse is "a very top-down process," discouraging lower-level workers from taking responsibility for safety. In meetings, the consultants saw that subordinates typically did not speak up or challenge their bosses' assumptions.

Workers believe that senior managers who were in charge as the lid rusted out haven't been held accountable. "Staff point out that some of the managers directly involved in the event remain in the organization and have been reassigned to other sites and positions," the study found.

For full coverage of Davis-Besse, go to www.cleveland.com/davisbesse/

To reach these reporters:

jfunk@plaind.com, 216-999-4138

jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.


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