Culture clash

Fermilab Director
Pier Oddone

At the recent meeting of the Employee Advisory Group, we discussed some of the results of the recent safety survey. One of the concerns arising from the survey was that employees often feel they have too many tasks and not enough time to do them. This can lead to distraction and, consequently, to employees’ performing their tasks unsafely, especially if employees are buffeted by multiple demands and take shortcuts to complete multiple jobs.

Performing multiple tasks and completing them safely should not be mutually exclusive goals. At our lab, however, there is a strong culture to get things done no matter how tough the circumstances are. This “can do no matter what” attitude at Fermilab is wonderful and it serves us well in many instances. However, if it leads to distractions, too-long working hours or shortcuts in matters of safety, it will serve us very poorly.

During discussions with the EAG, I became aware that part of employees’ frustration regarding multiple tasks stems from the perception that it is a manifestation of poor management and that we could easily resolve the issue. However, the problem is in large part intrinsic to the transition phase the laboratory is going through. We have moved from an era of operating facilities reliably with almost no construction projects to an era in which we not only continue to run major facilities, but also develop multiple new projects. In many instances we cannot assign a technical expert to each and every project or program, so we share the expertise among multiple projects.

The laboratory’s engagement in multiple activities and programs is a good thing, especially in this turbulent era when individual projects can suffer major setbacks from Washington at any time. What everyone has to understand, however, is that working safely is a higher imperative than getting things done on time. I am quite willing to take the bad marks the laboratory may get for not meeting milestones, but none of us should be willing to take chances with our personal safety in order to meet a schedule. When our “can do no matter what” culture clashes with our “safety first” culture, follow the latter: We all have your back!