NASA’s Obsession With Cube Safety

written by David Mixson

NASA’s dysfunctional safety culture is so far out of balance that it’s killing the agency.

Before you misread what I’m about to say, let me go ahead and make this point. I think NASA should absolutely care about keeping astronauts and workers around dangerous things safe.

This isn’t what I’m talking about here. NASA’s safety culture goes much deeper, and it’s destroying our ability to produce much of anything great. It’s everywhere, all the time.

It started in the early 2000s when center management started talking about employee safety at every all-hands meeting. Soon after that, stickers were placed on mirrors in front of every sink in every restroom that said, “Safety starts with you.” 

I thought the stickers were gaudy, but they didn’t measurably lower productivity, so that was okay. But it didn’t stop there. Now, nearly two decades later—without an Old Space vehicle to manage—it’s like a cancer that’s taking over. 

Safety Meetings

We have mandatory safety meetings at least once a month, where we talk about topics like the importance of washing your hands after using the restroom (I’m not joking) and how to use a lawnmower without cutting your foot off. And the list goes on and on.

I’m not talking about five-minute pep talks. I’m talking about twenty-page professionally created presentations that our safety organization spends weeks developing. 

Contractor employees not only attend the NASA safety meetings, but they usually attend ones sponsored by their company. Companies like to show they’re serious about safety. Having a few safety metrics to quote is a great place to start. After all, safety is NASA’s first Core Value.1

Whether companies think all this safety nonsense is important or not, I can’t know for sure. But even if they did, they aren’t about to stand up and say anything about it. Can someone say FEAR?

We have to sign our names on a roster for these safety meetings so our boss can log our attendance into an online tracking tool specifically built for tracking our safety meeting attendance. 

Just think about it.  A team of people had to build this tool. A team of people has to maintain this tool. Managers must log in to the tool and manually enter the names of people who attended each safety meeting. 

Then a team of people has to compile the attendance data and present it to center management so they can measure how well the NASA family is performing. All this takes time and resources we could use to design something that actually goes into space. 

This is now how today’s NASA measures its success.

Our bosses do all this fake safety stuff because their bosses make them. And their bosses do it because management at the top puts it on their performance plan. That’s how a massive bureaucracy works.

When this forced lawnmower safety stuff started, I think most folks thought it was senseless and something, frankly, that didn’t feel natural for a work setting. After all, most of us had moms and dads to teach us this sort of thing. But over the years, most now accept it as normal work.

Let me say this again because I hear what some of you are thinking. I’m not talking about safety meetings for workers who operate heavy equipment and move hazardous materials. Hardly any NASA engineers at the design centers do anything that remotely puts them in danger—at least not at work. Here, I’m talking about safety meetings for engineers who sit on their butts in cubes all day and occasionally build slide decks and attend meetings.

The worst thing that could happen to us at work is a slip, trip, or fall on the ever-so-dangerous walk to the restroom. Well, I suppose we could poke a finger with a paper clip or sip hot coffee.

Am I the only one who’s embarrassed to make six figures to hear things my mother taught me before I could vote or buy beer? I’d much rather spend taxpayer monies building something that blasts off into space.

Building Managers

But it doesn’t stop there. We have building safety managers (six-figure-engineers) who charge large amounts of their time to make sure electrical appliances have the proper permit, that desks are neat, and that (heaven help us) no one has an extension cord plugged into another extension cord.

The building managers in my building have gotten so out of control that they make my neighborhood HOA that slaps me on the wrist for putting out my trash before 6 p.m. look like lightweights.

You might want to sit down for this. Every building not only has a building manager and an assistant—but every floor has a building manager and an assistant. Cube safety comes first.

A five-story building might have twelve building managers charging part of their time to the critical duties of making sure we get notifications of when the restroom isn’t being kept tidy.

Are we making up work here? This is today’s NASA.

Contractor Safety Metrics

It gets even worse. NASA asks for (and uses) safety statistics as part of the source evaluation process when a company bids on a contract. That’s right. A billion-dollar engineering support contract can be won or lost based on how many cube engineers twisted an ankle walking to the bathroom and had to miss work. Can a company control this with safety meetings?

SEBs spend copious amounts of time evaluating this safety data as though it was a critical factor in determining whether a company can perform the tasks in the proposal.

Needless to say, our support contractors know this, and their management has their own internal safety meetings to make sure all employees know how to use the safety hotline at work and—heaven forbid—know to use the handrail when using the stairs.

I’m embarrassed to admit this publicly, but at least one contractor I know about has its employees fill out a travel safety plan before they go on work travel to outline steps they’ll follow to make sure they stay safe.

What could they possibly say?

“I will look both ways before I pull into traffic.”
“I will leave early for the airport so I won’t feel rushed.”

I’m going to give companies the benefit of the doubt and assume they do this solely because they think it will help them win the next NASA contract. I wish I was making this stuff up.

Safety Lecture Series

Just in case this isn’t enough, we have an organization that coordinates a Safety Lecture Series where high-ups from the past come back and talk to us about the importance of cube safety.

Here’s the truth. If you trip walking to your car, it’s on you—and the company that employs you shouldn’t be penalized on the next contract proposal.

Hot Off the Press

On the way home today, I saw an agency-wide publication posted by the elevator celebrating workers who were safe at work.

Just so you’ll know, here’s a small portion of what our inspiring “NASA Daily News” said on this day. This is so exciting (sarcasm).

LeRoy at the Armstrong Flight Research Center properly used an electrostatic mat while doing a task. Way to make us look good, LeRoy.

Jose and Eddie at White Sands donned the correct personal protective gear before working in a clean room. You guys are amazing. I’m thinking Group Achievement award here.

Ken at NASA Headquarters used a digital fire extinguisher in a training class to simulate how to properly put out a fire. You rock, man.

And last but not least, we should all congratulate Jonathan at Ames for going the extra mile. He noticed a spill outside his cube and quickly found a yellow warning sign to put by the spill. Jonathan, amazing work!

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s the actual publication.

Now the world knows why we voted ourselves as the top place to work in government. You guys make NASA what it is today. This is what your space agency celebrates as its accomplishments these days. This is what NASA’s Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) organization has become.

To NASA Management

Have any of you heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in all your management training? Perhaps you should google it. It’s one of the most significant studies ever done on worker productivity.

It says that there are five steps that a worker progresses through to reach peak performance, which Maslow calls self-actualization. Know what the bottom level is? Safety. According to Maslow, the safety level should be automatic unless workers feel their work environment is callously dangerous. Our work environment isn’t that.

Here’s what you need to know about Maslow’s findings in three sentences.

When management obsesses about safety, you’re guaranteeing low performance. You’re holding us back. You’re making sure we don’t have a chance competing against SpaceX.

I bet I’m not the only one who thinks billing so many hours to cube safety is a misuse of taxpayer money. Is it this way because managers need things to do to fill up time?

Is it because NASA desperately needs something to measure other than the number of astronauts launched into space in the last ten years using an Old Space launch vehicle?

Safety Day

Wait. I almost forgot something. NASA has a Safety Day every year where we are told to stand down from our normal work for an entire day and focus on safety. We gather together in a large auditorium where speakers talk about topics like the importance of using sunscreen on your next beach vacation. They almost always bring up the Challenger and Columbia accidents, too, as a way to congratulate us for being slothful.

A Real Story

On one of the Source Evaluation Boards (SEBs) I was on, we spent a good bit of time trying to understand the safety data for the company that was the incumbent. In particular, we were trying to understand the lost time data.

I knew from hall talk that one of their employees had committed suicide at work several years back. I asked our advisor, who was guiding us on how to score safety metrics:

“How does the employee who killed himself at work get factored into their safety data?”

Without hesitation, she said:

“That doesn’t show up in their safety metrics.”

Think about the insanity of this. We care more about lowering tripping statistics than we do about keeping an employee from feeling like they have no other way out except to hang themself at work.

The cube safety culture inside NASA is killing the agency. Maslow was right. NASA is guaranteed to stay locked into the lowest employee performance level as long as we obsess over safety.

I’m curious how often SpaceX has mandatory safety meetings for their engineers to discuss lawnmower safety. Never mind. I think I know the answer.

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About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

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