Update: Cause of Death of Schoolchildren from Tornado in Moore, Oklahoma Not Drowning

by Angela Griffith 

Although they are sometimes treated as a static object, Cause Maps (and any root cause analysis) can – and should – change based on updated or corrected information.  A frequent question we get asked is “What if I make a mistake on my Cause Map?”  Well, you fix it.  Let me show you how.

First, a little background on my error.  Last week, I thought it would be important and useful to demonstrate what had happened in the aftermath of Moore, Oklahoma, after a category 5 hurricane hit much of the town, including an elementary school.  (See the previous blog.)  Because there are certain expectations for public safety at an elementary school, I decided to focus the analysis on the children who died at the elementary school and the causes that led to their deaths, as well as information on the potential and implemented solutions to reduce that risk.

I researched how specifically the children had died – an unfortunate necessity to ensure that the solutions are working towards the correct causes – and discovered a statement from the Lt. Gov. of Oklahoma the morning after the tornado saying that the children who died had drowned in the basement due to a burst water main.

As you can imagine, sometimes information that is relayed in the immediate scene of a disaster is not entirely accurate.  In this case, the information that the children had drowned was incorrect.  Rather, the children who died were in a classroom and died from blunt force trauma and asphyxiation (suffocation) due to being struck or covered by debris from the tornado.

Once we have verified that our initial cause-and-effect relationship is incorrect, we can correct the Cause Map.  Rather than just erasing the “wrong” causes and adding in the new causes, we suggest crossing off the causes that have been disproved with evidence.  (Click on “Download PDF” above to see an example of a corrected Cause Map.)  This way anyone who may have seen an earlier version of the Cause Map, or heard the same initial erroneous information that was used to make it, will have a clear version of what did happen, including the evidence that verifies the correct information.

Obviously the fact that the children died is tragic, so some may wonder what difference it makes exactly how they died.  Generally people who are killed in tornadoes are killed by objects striking them.   This is why tornado survival drills focus on getting to spots where there is the least possible dangerous debris, or the least risk of the debris becoming dangerous flying objects. Windowless rooms are recommended, because glass can be broken and easily turn into shrapnel.  Basements are recommended because the strong winds associated with hurricanes have less access to underground areas.  Bathrooms are another option because most everything in a bathroom is secured to the walls and/or floors.  In a pinch, people seek protection under heavy pieces of furniture.  (Survivors from the affected school have said that they hid under their desks and held on for dear life.)

Because the basement is a recommended sheltering location, the possibility of drowning from  equipment that may be damaged by a tornado meant that the basement needed to be reconsidered as a sheltering location.  Because the school did not have a designated safe room, during the 16-minute warning teachers got their students to anywhere they could, including, in many cases, under their own bodies for protection.  (Again, based on the extreme damage to the school the death toll, while tragic, demonstrates the remarkably quick and effective action  taken the teachers.  I can’t emphasize this enough.)  Because this protection was very likely causally related to the death toll (in that without the amazing response from the teachers the death toll may have been much higher), I added additional evidence to the cause of injury.

Be aware that changing the causes may impact the recommended solutions.  The solutions discussed in the previous blog are still valid, especially the recommendations for inclusion of storm shelters for schools in the area.  An additional clarification added in the update is that this has been required since 1999 (after this school was built).  All the schools being rebuilt as a result of the tornado damage will have storm shelters, as will schools built in the future.  Individual communities will still be faced with the choice of which buildings will and will not be required to have storm shelters, and any incentives that will be put into place to encourage their construction.

To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to read more.

Children Killed When School Hit by Category 5 Tornado

by Angela Griffith 

A category 5 (the most destructive) tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma on May 20th, destroying the town and killing 24.  Of those killed, 7 were elementary school children, who drowned when water mains burst in the basement where they were sheltered.

Examining this tragedy can help provide lessons to reduce the risk of this issue happening again.  We can analyze the tornado impact at the most severely impacted elementary school in a Cause Map, in order to visually diagram the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the tragic deaths.

First, we determine the impacted goals.  In this case, all other goals are overshadowed by the deaths of seven  elementary students, and injuries to dozens.  In addition, the school was completely devastated (demonstrating the unbelievable destructive power of the tornado), resulting in early school closure and intense rescue, recovery and cleanup.

To perform our root cause analysis, we begin with the safety goal and ask “Why” questions.  The deaths in this case are reportedly due to drowning, which occurred when children in the basement (a recommended sheltering location in the case of tornadoes) drowned due to water from bursting water mains.  The specific failure mechanism of the failure is not known (and may never be due to the extreme levels of damage) but is likely related to the direct strike of the tornado, which is common in the area (close to the center of tornado alley).

Students who were injured by crushing and asphyxia were in the hallways and bathrooms of the school.  (These are recommended sheltering locations for buildings that don’t have basements.)   It is remarkable that, despite the complete annihilation of the school, students who were sheltered in hallways and bathrooms all survived, thanks in many cases to teachers protecting them with their own bodies.  A 16-minute warning from the National Weather Service combined with carefully rehearsed crisis plans that were put into action, allowed the best possible protection for students in a school without a safe room or storm shelter.

This storm has reignited the discussion about expectations for safety shelters in public places that are prone to natural disasters.  The devastating loss at the school has also raised the safety issue of ensuring that the locations used for shelter are cleared of other potential hazards, such as water mains and fire risks.  Because of the relatively short warning time (16 minutes in this case, which is above average) before a tornado strikes, emphasis on tornado drills and safety plans should continue.

To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to read more.

Emergency Plan Could Have Saved Lives in TX Plant Explosion

by Angela Griffith

Investigations are still ongoing to determine details on what caused the April 17, 2013 explosion in West, Texas (the subject of a previous blog).  The death toll has risen to at least 14, including 10 emergency workers.  Around 200 are believed to be injured.  The deaths were caused by the explosion of the site AND the proximity of the victims to the site.  The emergency workers were on-site fighting a fire (which was the ignition source of the explosion), but many of those injured had no real reason to be in such a proximity that they would be injured.   

Warning systems and emergency notifications may have resulted in some of the non-emergency response victims getting out of harm’s way.  However, warning systems and notifications like those required for other industrial sites including oil refineries and chemical plants are not required at fertilizer plants.  The plant owner did not comment on emergency management plans for the site.  Senator Barbara Boxer of California will attempt to determine if those requirements need to be strengthened. 

However, even if a warning system had provided sufficient protection to keep nearby citizens from harm, the property damage would have been extensive.  Many properties – including homes and schools – nearby were severely damaged in the blast.  This has led some to believe that there should be an enforced geographical buffer between these types of industrial facilities and other types of facilities, like homes and schools.  The mayor of West has suggested that the plant be rebuilt away from populated areas. 

More and more concerns are being raised about the safety of the plant itself – and the safeguards that could have prevented this explosion.  Despite the large amount of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate stored at the plant, the plant did not have a sprinkler system or fire barrier (which may have prevented the fire from igniting the fertilizer).   

Industrial plants such as these are regulated by a host of state and federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The EPA required a worst-case scenario from the West site, which identified a release from an anhydrous ammonia storage tank.  The risk of fire or explosion, and the storage of ammonium nitrate were not identified in the scenario, provided in 2011.  (The facility was fined in 2006 for not filing its risk management plan.) 

A key concern is the amount of fertilizer (270 tons) that was stored at the site – which was not disclosed with local governments or federal agencies.  Ammonium nitrate can be used as an explosive (~2.4 tons were used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995).  The high volume of ammonium nitrate was not known or disclosed to local or federal officials.   

Most of the victims in this incident were first responders – who had reported to the fire, not knowing the risk they were taking.  The facility had not disclosed the dangers on site, had not provided adequate protection from fire, and had provided little in the way of an effective emergency response plan.   

Every industrial site should have an up-to-date risk/emergency management plan.  The plan needs to be updated whenever new hazards are brought on-site or identified.  It is crucial that these plans be developed and shared with local response organizations, such as fire-fighters, so that they can be prepared for any potential issues.  These plans should also include community engagement to provide necessary information to people in the area as to what actions should be taken.  Existing incident investigations for industrial incidents can be used as a basis for creating these plans.  But, you don’t need to wait until you have a problem at your facility.  Taking the lessons learned from disasters that have already taken place can save your facility – and your community – a tot of heartbreak.   

Remember: A smart man learns from his mistakes, but a wise man learns from others’ mistakes. 

Contaminated Water Issues Remain at Fukushima

by Angela Griffith 

High levels of contaminated water leaving the highly damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan are creating issues for the personnel on site, who are working frantically to keep the reactor safe and working towards decommissioning and closing down the site.  Additionally, there is continued concern for the ongoing safety of the site, as the high volume of water could potentially threaten the safety of the reactors.

We can look at these issues in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis.  With a Cause Map, the first step is to determine how the issue impacts the organization’s goals.  In this case, we can consider the goals from the perspective of the utility company that owns the power plant.  There is an impact to the safety goal because of the potential risk for another accident, according to the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Authority.  The leakage of contaminated water is an impact to the environmental goal.  There is concern about the lack of a comprehensive plan by the utility, which can be considered an impact to the customer service goal.  The massive construction efforts required to install tanks to store the water are an impact to the property goal and the efforts by the workers to control the flow are an impact to the labor goal.

Once the impacts to the goals have been determined, the next step is asking “Why” questions to determine the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the incident.  In this case, the issues resulting in the high rate of contaminated water needing to be stored are that high rates of water are entering the reactor, becoming contaminated due to the damage inside the buildings from the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, and the water has to be removed from the building.

The water is entering the buildings because the plant is in the groundwater flow path from the mountains to the ocean and there is insufficient protection to prevent the water accessing the plant.   Severe cracking in the reactor buildings from the earthquake/tsunami are unable to be repaired due to the high residual levels of radioactivity.  The utility rejected plans to build a wall to protect the reactor.  It is believed this is because the utility had planned to dump the water into the ocean.   Additionally, according to the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, the issues from the water weren’t something that were thought of, as the focus was on the nuclear issues.  All involved in the cleanup, including the utility, have had their hands full, so it’s likely something as benign-seeming as water just wasn’t on the list of immediate concerns.

The contaminated water must be pumped out of the building to avoid swamping the cooling systems, which are still needed to remove decay heat that continues to be produced even after the reactors are shut down.  It appears that the original plan was to filter the water and dump it into the ocean, but even after filtering, a high level (about one hundred times the level released from a healthy plant) of tritium would remain.  Public outcry has ended the possibility of being able to dispose of the water that way.  Wastewater pits originally built for this purpose were found last month to be leaking, necessitating the installation of hundreds of tanks for water storage.

For now, the utility workers continue to install tanks to hold the radioactive water.  The task is so overwhelming, it’s not clear if there are any other plans to try and slow the tide of contaminated water.  However, outside experts are attempting to provide assistance.  The International Atomic Energy Agency completed its initial review of the decommissioning plans last month.  The final team report is expected later this month.

To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF” above.  Or click here to read more.

Hundreds of Garment Workers Killed in Building Collapse

By Angela Griffith

Hundreds are confirmed dead – with hundreds more still missing – as a result of a building collapse in Bangladesh.  The number of people who were in the building when it collapsed is unclear, due to spotty records.  Some sources have suggested the death toll may surpass 1,000.

We can examine the causes that led to the deaths in a Cause Map, which visually diagrams the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the tragedy.  First, we capture the impacts to the goals, which includes the extremely significant impact to the safety goal due to the high number of deaths as well as many other goals, including compliance, production and the impact to the labor goal resulting from the rescue and recovery operations.

The deaths were caused by the collapse of a building which was partially occupied at the time. The building housed five garment factories, as well as a bank and other shops.  Even though cracks appeared in the building   and inspectors requested evacuation and closure of the building, garment workers were ordered back to work.    The bank was evacuated, and the shops were already closed.  Despite deplorable conditions (brought to the attention first by a building fire last November and now by this tragic collapse),  workers (mainly young women)   can still be found to work in the garment industry because the average wages in the country are so low.  Eight people, including the building owner and engineers, have been charged as a result of the collapse.

The building, which was illegally built 3 stories too high, was not up to code and not approved by the government.  The building was built on wetland and used substandard materials for construction. As a result of this collapse, the government has said it will form a committee to ensure the safety of buildings and workers.  Shops in the US and Europe that sell garments produced in Bangladesh have distanced themselves from the companies housed in the buildings while many consumers call for more oversight from these companies, who utilize cheap labor in Bangladesh to create their goods.  The garment industry accounts for 77% of Bangladesh’s exports.

It is hoped that this recent tragedy will increase the attention paid to worker safety by the government within Bangladesh as well as consumers who buy the end product abroad.

To view the Outline and Cause Map, please click “Download PDF ” above.