Utlimate Responsibility

April 15, 2003
When your work results in injury or death

I have to wonder how the engineers involved in the recent space shuttle tragedy are feeling and how they are managing their sense of responsibility for this disaster. Of course, our hearts go out to the crews loved ones, who have suffered the greatest losses, but I feel for the engineers who took such painstaking steps to ensure quality and safety, and failed.

How are they doing? What thoughts are they struggling with? Are they able to sleep at night? I'm sure at some point when you found out about the Columbia, you were relieved that you were not involved. It must be devastating, like a parent losing a child to suicide. That endless unanswered question, "What did I do wrong?"

It's one thing to make a mistake or misjudge something that doesn't hurt people, or maybe only injures yourself. But many of you carry the tremendous burden of being responsible for others and making decisions that affect their safety. How do you cope with a plant incident or disaster that injures or kills?

Falling insulation, tile damage, old age, lack of funding--you can be certain the history of the Columbia will be scrutinized over and over until an accurate explanation is found. According to Morton Thiokol, before the Challenger loss in 1986, engineers' concerns had been overlooked and devalued. Was that also the case in the Columbia disaster? What about those infamous e-mails that went without action?

We need to understand the cause, not only so we can try to prevent something like this from ever happening again, but for the country to be able to move on and forward.

And when we do figure out what went wrong, aside from the crews family members, it will be those engineers and technicians who worked on the shuttle that will have to live most closely with this tragedy. They are ones stuck with the question, "How did I fail?"

Engineers have a quest for knowledge, but never at the expense of lives. Fortunately, most engineers seldom face deadly results from the work they do and are not involved in such high-profile projects. But all engineers deal with cost/benefit analyses as part of their jobs. At some time in your career, you may well be involved in something that can or did have a negative impact.

I hope that any of you who are struggling with this do not punish yourselves. When you are involved in a disaster, it is common to second-guess yourself in work-related matters. You may feel insecure about the daily decisions you have to make.

If the guilt and sadness become debilitating, you may wish to avoid work and the problems entirely. At that point, you may want to seek professional help. You may think that others cannot understand you, but professionals can help you separate the emotional grief from the rational facts of the tragedy.

You will also learn about the negative thinking you are doing that is influencing your perceptions. It's appropriate to feel sadness, but it is irrational to feel complete responsibility for the outcome.

Use your sense of moral responsibility to fuel your own analysis of the disaster. It is normal and worthwhile to restructure the events over and over again in your mind. Initially, you will remember the sequence of events as if it happened yesterday and in slow motion. It is common to have a very narrow and negative focus. Many important facts typically go unnoticed.

The more you review the events, the more new things that were once ignored, devalued, or forgotten will surface. It is helpful to review the events with a professional who can help you to look at things more realistically and give you feedback on what you have been overlooking.

Don't worry if you start to be unsure about the details and things begin to change as you unfold the events. This is a good sign and indicates that your mind is opening up to all the variables involved. This will let you consider all the circumstances and the resources available at the time you were making decisions.

My guess is that some of you have successfully dealt with this kind of moral responsibility. Please let me know if you have discovered effective means of coping with it and would be willing to share them (anonymously, of course, if you prefer). Perhaps your insights will allow me to write a future column based directly on experiences in process control.

There is always a valuable lesson to be learned from failure. The best you can do is to make sure your own life is positive and productive, and a good way to heal from a disaster is sharing your knowledge with others.

Bettyann Lichtenstein is a licensed clinical therapist. 

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