Thursday, February 02, 2017

The Emperor Has No Clothes

The impact of the Trump's executive order on the admission of citizens from the 7 countries continues to be felt and the topic of conversation in many college campuses, science labs, and conferences. But something triggered in my head when I read this Washington Post news article on how this ban would not have prevented the attacks in the US since Sept. 11. When I read this, I immediately remembered a similar scenario, and this is where I connect it to the theme of this blog.

Back in, oh, I forget exactly when, probably mid-2000s, there was a laser accident at a lab (I'm not gonna name names). I'm going to rely on my memory based on what I read as the official report on the accident, and from what I heard from a friend who happened to know the person involved.

To set up the scenario, most, if not the majority, of laser accident occurred when the laser is running and the safety mode is bypassed. The most frequent reason for doing this is that the laser is either being worked on, being repaired, being serviced, or the most common occurrence, it is being aligned. People who are authorized to do this are usually trained, and had to undergo safety classes to ensure that they know what they are doing.

What happened in this accident, from what I remember, is that this person, along with at least one other person, was doing a typical laser alignment. He was wearing a pair of safety glasses as required, which protected his eyes in case there were stray beam hitting his face. Unfortunately, while in the middle of doing this work (which was part of the standard operating procedure of the facility), he had an itch around his eyes. In a moment where instinct took over, before he had time to think about it, he reached inside his safety glasses with his hand to rub his eyes, causing the safety glasses to be lifted off his face. Unfortunately, without realizing it, a beam of the laserwas, at that time, pointing straight at him. It only happened probably less than a second, but it was enough that the laser hit his eyes and sufficient to cause damage.

I'm not going to go into detail of what happened immediately afterwards, because it isn't relevant to this story. So of course, after this incident is reported, the lab issued a lab-wide stand-down, and all operations of Class 2b laser and higher had to stop. We were told to evaluate our laser operations and safety procedure, and we had to get reauthorized before we can continue work. At the same time, all personnel that are involved in any laser work had to attend a safety seminar.

So I sat through this safety seminar where they described the accident, emphasize the need for us to work safely, re-enforce the requirements for safety procedure... etc...etc. But at the same time, in response to the accident, they produced a whole new set of policy and procedures for all laser facilities. We had to have yearly inspection, yearly authorization, and new documentation of our procedure and safety analysis. In other words, new set of administrative controls were introduced.

Of course, as you can guess, there were groans in the audience, because it meant that there would be more bureaucratic paperwork and administrative hoops that we had to go through. During the Q&A session, several people asked questions, and one could tell that a lot of people in the audience weren't too pleased by this. Finally, and this is where I came, in, I raised my hand, and asked something like this:

"So how would any of the new procedures that were introduced prevented this accident?"

Now, looking back on it afterwards, I would describe the audience reaction to my question as what I imagined would happen when someone finally yelled that the Emperor had no clothes. In this case, the Emperor truly had no clothes. It was an unfortunate accident, but no amount of training, regulation, safety briefing, paperwork, review, etc. would have prevented it, because that was something instinctual. The new administrative policy that was put in place didn't make any of us who work with these lasers any safer. I certainly didn't feel any safer than before. Yet, this was imposed upon us. It wasn't to make us any safer or to prevent any accident. It is simply to placate the higher-ups, the stakeholders, the policy makers, the regulators, the administrators, and finally and ultimately, the politicians (if they decided to look into this). They can say that they implemented this and that after the accident to make them look good. The rest of us who are actually doing the work get saddled with more paperwork and more hoops to jump through.

I'm certain that this isn't new, and that many people have gone through such similar situations where what is being done in the name of something really isn't effective and may miss the mark. Often times, we simply go along just to make the administration happy so that we can move on and continue with our work. But it still means that the Emperor has no clothes, and sometime, someone really needs to stand up and points out this ridiculousness.


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