Backlogs can smother employee engagement

The 40-person Chemical Safety Board concentrated on clearing a stuck backlog of investigation reports, making the country safer and employee satisfaction better...

Here’s a statistic that raised my eyebrows: Twice as many people over 65 years of age are working than a generation ago. Some 19% of those 65 or older are working — and 62% of them are at it full time. That’s according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

Many factors go into a decision to keep working past the traditional retirement date. But fundamentally, people must at least like the work and find fulfillment in it.

By extension, they’ve got to like the organization. My personal theory is that the less the non-work time taxes of meetings, forms and reports, the more people can concentrate on the work. The less bureaucracy, the longer people can tolerate a job, no matter how long they hope to work.  People would rather do real work than ancillary process and twisting and turning in meetings.

Some occupations come with less friction or overhead than others. Say you’re a manager somewhere deep in General Motors or the Commerce Department. You’re going to have a lot more of what my grandmother would have called meshugas foolish or senseless activity — than a portrait painter or fulltime investor. But even painters have to buy paint, negotiate rent for their studios and schmear stuff on new canvases. They probably have occasional grumpy clients who don’t like the way a portrait came out.

Bureaucratic meshugas doesn’t just go with bigness. It can seep even into tiny agencies, like the 40-odd person U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, or CSB. In the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the employee engagement index at the CSB rose 29 points, and its “global satisfaction” index by 28 points.

The CSB chairman, Steve Owens, said he believes one reason is reduction in bureaucracy, one of his priorities upon his Senate confirmation in July 2022.

Between then and a couple of weeks ago, the agency managed to clear out its backlog of investigation reports, some of which had been lingering since 2016. Staff had to work hard to clear the backlog, Owens said. But they were doing the work they were hired to do, using their expertise and brainpower to issue findings and recommendations discovered in investigating chemical plant disasters. Not, that is, in endless approval cycles and paper shuffling. Micromanagement, Owens said, gave way to giving people discretion to use their judgement. That had to be satisfying.

By standards of the IRS, Veterans Affairs or Merit Systems Protection Board, the CSB had only a tiny backlog: 17 cases in all. But the agency only has about 40 employees. Plus. its reports, however few cases it investigates each year, have impact on safety throughout the nation. Like the National Transportation Safety Board, the CSB delves into specific incidents that often have wide implications.

Case in point: Back in 2017, a steam pressure vessel at a St. Louis box-making plant blew, killing three employees. The 2,000-pound thing launched itself into the air, right through the roof. It crashed through the roof of another business a block away. One employee of the Loy Lange Box Company was killed, along with three people of the ironically-named Faultess Healthcare Linen Company.

Many factories use steam pressure apparatus. They decidedly do not want a BLEVI, or boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion. The CSB found a history of bad maintenance and operating procedures that left the boiler corroded and weak. So how to operate one safely is of interest to many people outside of the Loy Lange Box Company. That investigation report was one of the first to dislodge under the concerted effort, but six years elapsed.

The crazy steam pressure  incident reminded me of an infamous plane crash back in May 1979. I saw the dispatch come in on the UPI fax machine in the newsroom of the newspaper I worked at. A wing engine broke off a DC-10 right after takeoff in Chicago. The plane flew out of control, and 273 people died. The NTSB discovered an airplane maintenance procedure that weakened the metal pieces holding the engine onto the wing. More than one airline had been using this procedure. The findings likely prevented many more deaths. The NTSB issued detailed findings in December of the year of the crash. The planes were grounded in the meantime. The NTSB work sparked a National Academy of Sciences study, concerned not only with the plane but also of the FAA’s certification process and general level of expertise, and even how the airlines are designed.

What if the NTSB had taken six years to get the report out?

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