Boston Globe Magazine staff writer Swidey’s Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles into the Darkness chronicles the construction of Boston’s much-heralded Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant and highlights the complexity of bringing massive public works to completion, including the deaths of two workers on the project.
The divers employed on this project were uneasy at the working conditions. What prevented them from making more noise?
The first-of-its-kind mission I describe was so exotic that it took them much longer to piece together their concerns. Moreover, this crew had been cobbled together from across the country. As strangers, they weren’t practiced in reading each other’s signals, making it harder to put up a united front.
Harald Grob, the project manager, almost qualifies as the villain, though he was simply looking after his own interests. Is there a true villain here?
There isn’t a single villain. As manager, Grob hoarded information and control, shut out the divers rather than drawing on their experience, and ignored the red flags they raised. But had it not been for years of organizational dysfunction by the main project players, Grob would never have acquired so much power.
On big projects like this one, who should take responsibility for worker safety?
At big teaching hospitals, where patients see so many interns, residents, fellows, and specialists, it’s difficult to figure out who’s in charge. In the case of this mission, too many parties owned a chunk of responsibility and were all anxious to offload as much as possible onto other parties. If worker safety is paramount, you can’t distance yourself from it. Every party must act as though it owns 100% of the responsibility.
How can we tell the dangerous glitches from the ones that can safely be ignored?
That’s a great question because we do post-mortems only when things go wrong. We’re generally not aware of the times when something that didn’t seem right at the outset ended up working. One reason I consulted NASA during my research is that it has unparalleled experience running high-risk missions. The more untested the operation, the more rigorous the training should be. Training gives a crew the knowledge to work through crises, but it’s equally important for forging cohesion between the crew and Mission Control. If both communicate, they can work together to decide if a problem is minor or a fundamental flaw.
It’s a commonly accepted practice that government contracts should go to the lowest bidder. Why do you disapprove?
To win a big contract, a contractor has to bid low—often below actual costs. To make a profit, the contractor must either cut costs or request more money from the government. The first tactic can lead to short-sighted decisions. The second injects conflict into the project, pitting the various players against one another. And when a project goes badly, it costs everyone, including taxpayers.