I was speaking to a friend who was involved with some training for one of the large aircraft manufacturers. During a discussion with the safety officer of the site they were working on, this officer mentioned an incident that had recently occurred which really got me thinking on how we come to decisions.
Here is what happened:
During assembly, both wings are mounted onto the fuselage parallel to keep the aircraft in balance and stable. As part of the process of bonding the elements together, they need to be bolted on, this involves a person passing their arm through an narrow opening in the wing space to thread and tighten a bolt. During one such operation, an employee got his arm stuck. The situation escalated, the arm was thoroughly stuck and swelling – in the end a large group, amongst which were the shift manager, rescue services, paramedics and a doctor, were all huddled together on the wing around the poor guy with the stuck arm, who by this time one would imagine was getting increasingly desperate.
Now, bearing in mind that modern large aircraft, such as Airbus’ A380, cost around 400 million Euros, with the wings representing a substantial chunk of the total cost, obviously the shift manager was in a serious dilemma as to what to do. With his operational head on, he was certainly only too aware of the substantial damage, delay, cost and awkward questions that cutting the wing would bring with it – yet this made no difference to the fact that the arm remained stuck.
In the end it came to a head when the arm started turning blue, the doctor informed the shift manager that he had one minute (forget about 127 hours!) to decide how to proceed before he would be forced to amputate the arm to save the person’s life. Finally, and under extreme pressure, the manager decided to cut open the wing and save the arm. Talk about a decision being down to the wire!
There are various ways of looking at this. There is obviously a procedural aspect: how was it possible for this situation to occur? How can procedures be modified in the future to prevent such an occurrence from happening again, but short term the manager was probably weighing up the two options: which was he willing or able to sacrifice, wing or arm?
What is an arm worth anyway?
Well, for medical research for example, you can pick up a whole cadaver for around $2’500. So how expensive can an arm be?
But of course if the arm is still attached to a living person, the picture changes somewhat. In regards to the exact costs involved, there are many factors in play, legal as well as geographical ones.
In Alabama, for instance, you can expect around $49’000 worker’s compensation for loss of a limb (this sum includes the prosthesis). However, across the border in Georgia, worker’s compensation is much higher, around $120’000 with additional benefits that can surpass $740’000 during a lifetime. In the UK the range of compensation you can expect for an arm injury amputation claim is £62,000 – £192,000 (you have to take these numbers with a pinch of salt, mind you, due to the many variables involved).
So how do you balance that against the costs that cutting open the wing entail? Whilst superficially this may seem like quite a cold, dehumanising take on such a situation, this balancing off of costs vs. risk, probability, exposure time and consequences is certainly something that is assessed in large organisations and companies and is the foundation for defining levels of acceptable risk.
The aviation industry has a deeply ingrained safety culture, as they are clearly working on safety-critical systems. If they fall prey to this kind of incident, what hope is there for the rest of us? Well, of course there is hope. It is down to the individual’s diligence, competence and proficiency to understand and analyse procedures. These may be set in stone in some instances, but in others, protocols may evolve in a fluid and dynamic fashion to incorporate new insights or in response to incidents.
In some ways this incident reminded me of the weighing up of the consequences when considering the removal of a dead tree: the cost of dropping the tree across the garden and making good the damage vs. the risk of putting a climber in the tree.
I certainly do not envy the shift manager having to make that call – yet without a shadow of doubt, from an ethical point of view, the right call was made.