Normal Violations

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Responsibility for the Upper Branch Mine tragedy will be decided by the courts, but I was still astonished to read that Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Company, told reporters that "[v]iolations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process." His remark that the Mine Safety and Health Administration and state authorities could have but did not shut down the operation certainly is worth investigating. But Mr. Blankenship evoked a term with a special meaning for technology analysts: "normalization of deviance."

This 2008 interview with the Columbia sociologist and consultant Diane Vaughn, who coined the phrase in her prize-winning 1996 book The Challenger Launch Decision, is a good introduction to the topic. For example:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don't consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety. But it is a complex process with some kind of organizational acceptance. The people outside see the situation as deviant whereas the people inside get accustomed to it and do not. The more they do it, the more they get accustomed.

For the debate on mine safety, I also suggest James R. Chiles's Inviting Disaster (my own review is here), which shows that even in hazardous circumstances like aircraft carrier flight decks, best practices in organization can improve reliability dramatically.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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