Deadly Plane Crash at San Francisco Airport

By Kim Smiley

On July 6, 2013, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed while attempting to land at the San Francisco International Airport. Three people have died as a result of the crash and around 180 others were injured, 13 critically. The cause of the crash is currently under investigation, but there were no obvious mechanical issues and the weather was near perfect.

Even though the investigation is still in its infancy, an initial Cause Map can be built to document what is known now about the accident and it can easily be expanded later as more information becomes available. A Cause Map is a visual format for performing a root cause analysis that intuitively lays out the different causes for an accident. The first step in the Cause Mapping process is to fill in an Outline with the basic background information for an issue. On the bottom half of the Outline there is space to document how the problem impacts the overall goals. This is useful because it helps everyone involved in the process understand the big picture and the issues with the more significant impacts can be prioritized first.

There is also space on the Outline to list anything that was different or unusual at the time the problem occurred. It’s important to note any differences because they are usually worth exploring during an investigation because they may have played a role in the accident. In this specific example, this was the first time the pilots had worked together and the two main pilots were both in unfamiliar roles. The pilot landing the plane had limited experience with Boeing 777s even though he was an experienced pilot and this was his first time landing this type of aircraft at the San Francisco airport. There was another pilot instructing him, but it was his first flight as an instructor.

Once the Outline is completed, the next step is to ask “why” question and add the answers to the Cause Map. In this example, we know that the airplane was coming in too low and too slow to land safely, but it isn’t known why that happened. The NTSB has initiated an investigation and the results will reported when the analysis is complete. Some of the early speculation is that there may have been an equipment failure, mismanagement of automated systems or ineffective communication in the cockpit. The fact that this crew was different than the typical staffing has been a focus of investigators, but it isn’t known what role they may have played in the crash.

Another piece of this puzzle is that one of the passengers who died at the crash scene appears to have been killed when she was run over by a fire engine. She was covered in foam on the ground and the firefighters were unaware of her location. Emergency response procedures will need to be reviewed as part of the investigation into this accident to ensure that first responders can do their jobs in the safest way possible.

To view an initial Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.


A Potentially Stinging Situation – Jellyfish Blooms

By Kim Smiley

Jellyfish are some of nature’s most impressive survivors.  They have been around since long before the dinosaurs roamed the earth and continue to thrive.  In some cases, they may even be thriving a little too successfully.  Massive jellyfish blooms can flourish in the right environment and can decimate other species and cause significant damage.

Naturally occurring jellyfish blooms have been around for ages and while they may be inconvenient at times, they aren’t particularly alarming.  The real concern is that manmade conditions may lead to the growth of jellyfish blooms at times or regions that wouldn’t normally see them.  Large numbers of jellyfish can cause a number of serious issues.  Safety is a concern because jellyfish stings are painful and can even be deadly.  Regions that depend on tourism can also be impacted because travelers may avoid areas with large numbers of jellyfish.  Jellyfish have caused damage to ships and buildings when they clog intake lines.  Populations of other species have also been decimated in some areas by jellyfish blooms which can affect commercial fishing operations.

What causes these jellyfish blooms can be explored by building a Cause Map or visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map intuitively lays out causes that contribute to an issue and shows the cause-and-effect relationships between them.  In this example, the jellyfish blooms grow because jellyfish are well suited for life in low oxygen “dead zones” that are being created in the ocean.

It all starts with fertilizer containing nutrients running into the ocean.  An algae bloom forms as algae feed on the nutrients.  Eventually the nutrients are depleted and the algae dies off leading to the growth of a bacterial bloom as bacteria feed on the dead algae.  The bacterial bloom depletes the oxygen making the region unsuitable for most species.  However, the opportunistic jellyfish can survive and even thrive in low oxygen levels.  Jellyfish are able to rapidly grow and reproduce quickly so the population surges upward in an environment with few predators and little competition.

A few facts so that the reproductive abilities of jellyfish can be fully appreciated: a single female jellyfish can release tens of thousands of eggs per day, and jellyfish are able to double their weight in a single day if food is abundant.

Eating habits of jellyfish also make it very difficult for other species to move back into the region even if oxygen levels increase.  Jellyfish not only compete for the same food as larvae of other species, plankton, they are fond of eating larvae and eggs.  It’s difficult to compete with a species that is both a predator and competitor.

Before anyone has nightmares of huge jellyfish causing wide scale destruction, I should note that researchers have not found evidence that jellyfish are in danger of overrunning the oceans.  But many scientists do believe that human activities have contributed to jellyfish blooms growing in localized areas.  It’s always worth trying to understand how human activities are impacting our environment, especially when a species so well equipped for survival is involved.

To view a high level Cause Map of this issue, click on “Download PDF” above.

50 Presumed Dead in Canadian Train Disaster

By ThinkReliability Staff

A tragic accident devastated the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013.  Much about the issue is still unknown.  When investigating an incident such as this, it can be helpful to identify what is known and information that still needs to be determined.

What is known: a 73-car train was parked in Nantes, Quebec, uphill from Lac-Mégantic.  Of the cars, 72 contained crude oil.  The train was left unattended and late the evening of July 5, 2013, a fire broke out in the locomotive.  While the fire department of Nantes was putting out the fire, they turned off the train’s main engine.  Less than two hours later, the train rolled down the track and derailed in Lac-Mégantic.  After subsequent explosions and long-burning fires, 24 people have been confirmed dead.  26 more are missing.   Much of the town and the train – and the evidence in it – is destroyed.

What is not known: The cause of the initial fire on the train is not known.  Whether or not the fire department should have explicitly notified the train engineer that the main engine had been shut off is not known.  What happened that allowed the train to roll downhill is unknown.

With this number of unknowns, it is helpful to visually lay out the cause-and-effect relationships that occurred, and what impact they had on those affected.  This can allow us to see the holes in our analysis and identify where more evidence is needed.  Once as much evidence as possible has been obtained, additional detail can be added to the cause-and-effect relationships.  Ensuring that all causes related to the incident are included will provide the largest number of solutions, allowing us to choose the most effective.  We can do all this in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis.

The first step in using any problem solving methodology is to determine the impact caused by the incident.  In this case, the deaths (and assumed deaths) are our most significant impact.  Also addressed should be the crude oil leakage (though much of it was likely burned off), the high potential for lawsuits, the possible impact on rail shipments, the destruction of the town and the train, and the response and cleanup efforts.  These form the initial “effects” for our cause-and-effect analysis.

Asking “Why” questions allows us to further develop the cause-and-effect relationships.  We know that for the train to roll backwards down the hill, both sets of brakes had to be ineffective.  The railway company has stated that the air brakes released because the main engine had been shutdown.  However, according to the New York Times, “since the 19th century, railways in North America have used an air-braking system that applies, rather than releases, freight car brakes as a safety measure when it loses pressure.”  This certainly makes more sense than having brakes be dependent on engine power.

The hand brakes functioned as backup brakes.  The number of cars (which, when on a hill, affects the force pulling on the train) determines the number of handbrakes required.  In this case, the engineer claims to have set 11 handbrakes, but the rail company has now stated that they no longer believe this.  No other information – or evidence that could help demonstrate what happened to either sets of brakes – has been released.

Also of concern are the style of train cars – believed to be the same that the NTSB identified in a report on a previous train accident as “subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials”.

In a tragedy such as this one, the first priority is to save and preserve human lives in every way possible.  However, once that mission is complete, evidence-gathering to determine what happened is the next priority.  As evidence becomes available it is added directly to the Cause Map, below the cause it supports or refutes.  Additional causes are added as necessary with the goal of determining all the cause-and-effect relationships to provide the largest supply of possible solutions to choose from.

The company involved has already stated it will no longer leave trains unattended.  That should be a big help but, given the consequences of this event, other solutions should be considered as well.

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