Editorial: Normalization of Deviance in the Time of COVID-19 | AIChE

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Editorial: Normalization of Deviance in the Time of COVID-19

August
2020

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Normalization of deviance is a gradual erosion of performance and safety standards due to an increased tolerance for nonconformance. 

“Wherever a process exists, there will be deviations from that process. Skipped steps, workarounds, shortcuts, improvements, and innovations can be incorporated over time, gradually resulting in new practices that are accepted as the norm,” writes Jennifer Mize (Eastman Chemical Co.) in “The Roundabout Way to Disaster: Recognizing and Responding to Normalization of Deviance” (Process Safety Progress, 2018).

In the chemical industry, the accumulation of small deviations can lead to a catastrophic process safety event. In fact, the normalization of deviance has been at least partially to blame in a great number of notable accidents, including the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

In his article “Deepwater Horizon: Normalization of Deviance” (Chemicals and Materials Now!, 2016) Mike Schmidt (Bluefield Process Safety) states that most process safety incidents are the result of a series of small choices, deviations, and mistakes. “We want to believe that a disaster is the result of a single, catastrophic decision. In our narrative, we want to believe that decision to be based on a selfish, evil choice … Unfortunately, that’s not how it works,” writes Schmidt. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic surged in early March and the U.S. began to take preventive measures to slow its spread, people took up the challenge of self-isolation and dutifully social distanced from friends and coworkers. Consumers raced to the stores to stock up on essential goods, schools and theaters closed, vacations were canceled, and plazas and parks were abandoned. 

In early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that people should wear cloth face coverings in public areas where it is difficult to maintain social distance. At first, many people were confused by the new recommendation — previously, the CDC advised that the only people who needed masks (other than healthcare workers) were those who were sick or caring for someone who was ill. But the new measure was quickly adopted as grocery stores, restaurants, and pharmacies began enforcing “no mask, no entry” policies. 

After four months of social distancing, however, many among us have had enough of self-isolation, of not seeing or hugging family and friends, of takeout food instead of sit-down service. The massive crowds of maskless revelers flocking to the beaches over the July 4th holiday prove that Americans are nearly incapable of policing ourselves when it comes to pandemic response. We cannot hope to stop the spread of this highly contagious virus by simply advising beachgoers to maintain social distance and wear masks, because only a small portion of those people will experience any negative effect from their actions. 

“In the movies, deviating from doing things the right way typically results in swift, sure punishment. In real life, deviating from doing things the right way typically results in nothing,” writes Schmidt. “Because we usually get away with deviating from doing things the right way, deviations become the new normal.”

Only a few months ago, in April, “normal” meant carefully sanitizing your hands before and after going to the pharmacy. Normal was wearing a mask every time you left your house — even if you were simply walking the dog. Normal meant foregoing visits with your mother or grandfather to avoid passing on the virus to a more at-risk person. But as time wore on and only a few unlucky among us caught the disease or experienced its direct impact, we began to deviate from our strict standards. Mask wearing became a matter of political opinion, rather than a simple but potentially life-saving inconvenience. A visit to Grandma’s house is acceptable as long as nobody has a sore throat or fever. A weekend at the shore can’t hurt — we’ve been cooped up for months! These small deviations have the potential to end in severe illness and potentially even death for you and others in your community. 

As chemical engineers, we are taught to examine past accidents with a critical eye. It’s easy to look back on the Challenger disaster and tally the list of small but crucial safety deviations that led to the loss of the shuttle and the death of all seven crewmembers. But it is more difficult to hold a mirror to our own lives as events unfold and tally a list of choices that we’ve made that could cost someone their life.

Although nobody is perfect (even I visited with a few friends recently), we must stay mindful that we are living in extraordinary times and that seemingly mundane decisions can have lasting impact. In the short term, the best way to halt the spread of this disease will be to maintain a strict standard of hand-sanitizing, mask wearing, and social distancing — and deviate from that standard as little as possible. 

Emily Petruzzelli, Managing Editor

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