Safety starts at the top of any organization, and the proof of that can be found in the wake of a number of infrastructure failures in recent years, a panel of experts said at a conference Tuesday convened by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) in San Francisco.

“Collectively, we all have a very heavy responsibility,” said CPUC President Michael Peevey at the Safety Leadership Conference. “We’re all involved in industries that carry the potential for catastrophic consequences or failure. As leaders we are responsible, not just for policy and the bottom line, but for the safety. Many of us are here because we came up short in that responsibility.”

Other speakers included a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) member Robert Sumwalt; Washington [DC] Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Vice Chairman Mortimer Downey; and Karlene Roberts, who heads the University of California, Berkeley, catastrophic risk management center.

Sumwalt, a former commercial pilot who later trained pilots in safety, stressed the critical role leadership plays in preventing “organizational accidents,” one of the most recent being the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) gas utility’s pipeline rupture and explosion at San Bruno, CA. Organizational accidents — one of the highest cited is the Columbia space shuttle breakup on reentry in 2003 — are caused by a combination of factors that can include lack of a safety focus; use of the wrong safety metrics and/or poor regulatory and internal board oversight, he noted.

Sumwalt and Downey also elaborated on the 2009 Washington, DC, metropolitan train disaster, when one train slammed into the back of another one just outside of the District in Maryland. They used that as a classic example if an organizational accident, contrary to first impressions of it being operator error.

Roberts’ focus is on “high-reliability organizations” in working with the energy industry, military and aviation sectors in the United States. Examples are found in the nuclear energy industry, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and in the commercial airline industry, where she said more aircraft have been put in the air during the past 10 years and the accident rates have continued to decline.

Peevey commented at one point on PG&E’s 2,200 MW Diablo Canyon Nuclear Generating Plant in California as having a “good standard of safety,” raising the question of whether there is not a significant gap between the combination utility’s electricity and natural gas organizations. “Perhaps there is a gap in the safety cultures of the two organizations?” he asked.

“I think this shows how important it is to have them at parity as we go forward; I think this is critically important.”

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