Avoidable Disasters: Major (and Deadly) Human Screw-ups

Chernobyl disaster aftermath shows extensive damage to the main reactor hall (center) and turbine building (lower left ). (Image credit: Soviet authorities via Wikipedia)

While BP seems to have gotten the flow of oil in the Gulf of Mexico under control for now, investigations suggest corners were cut for the sake of profit and expediency, leading to the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion and fire that killed 11 workers and started the oil leak.

Taking shortcuts is one thing; purposely shutting down existing safety systems is a very different matter, and according to new information, serious safety violations may have led to the worst mine disaster in the last 25 years, the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 workers in April.

Upper Big Branch mine worker Ricky Lee Campbell told National Public Radio that an electrician intentionally circumvented methane-detecting safety systems put in place to protect the miners:

"Everybody was getting mad because the continuous miner kept shutting off because there was methane," Campbell said. "So, they shut the section down and the electrician got into the methane detector box and rewired it so we could continue to run coal." (A continuous miner is essentially a large drill that spits the coal onto a conveyor belt.)

The federal agency that oversees coal mining called the allegations "deeply troubling" and promised further investigation.

Though not widely known, intentional bypassing of safety systems led to two of the worst accidents in the last century.

In January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff from Florida's coast. Investigation revealed that NASA officials had ignored safety warnings for years. Engineers at Morton-Thiokol (since renamed ATK Launch Systems Group) warned that O-ring seals on the shuttle's right solid rocket booster failed repeated tests under the cold conditions that existed the morning of the Challenger launch.

NASA managers knew about this potentially fatal design flaw and approved the launch anyway. As tests and engineers had predicted for years, the O-rings burst and the flight — along with its seven astronauts — was doomed.

Later that same year, at Russia's Chernobyl nuclear reactor a group of scientists intentionally deactivated several safety systems in order to test a cooling system at reactor 4. The experiment failed, and it's likely that if the safety measures had not been disengaged the worst nuclear accident in history could have been avoided.

Science, technology, and engineering can dramatically improve safety, but in the end seat belts only work if you use them.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His new book is Scientific Paranormal Investigation; this and his other books and projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.