Learning From the Volcano

Alex Pollock

While recently holed up in Amsterdam for five days due to volcanic ash from Iceland, I added another scenario to my “predictable surprises” folder…airborne volcanic ash.

When I left Michigan expecting to reach Glasgow, Scotland some 12 hours later, I never thought I would be part of travel history. I saw first-hand that things go well until they don’t. Chaos quickly descended as travelers realized that they were stranded and airline officials ran for cover from the questioning horde. With Icelandic volcanoes having a history of “disrupting weather and history since 1783,” why was the airline industry caught speechless — and without a plan?

On a professional and personal level are we really any better prepared for the winds of change that might disrupt our tranquility at any time? How can we “ash-proof” what we deeply care about?

  • What should we be doing as EHS professionals to “ash-proof” our careers? (I read recently that our well-being actually recovers more quickly from the death of a spouse than it does from a sustained period of unemployment. More on this in my next blog.)
  • What should we be doing to “ash-proof” those EHS programs/initiatives that we’ve labored so long and hard for? (Change of boss coupled with budget cuts can be a deadly combination.)

I could ask many more questions but by now you’ve grasped my theme. Please share with us your “ash” stories, what you learned from them and lessons you’d like your EHS colleagues to take away from your experiences. Let’s learn from each other!

About Alex Pollock

Alex Pollock has been studying leadership effectiveness for more than 30 years. A former leader in environment, health and safety, and public affairs at The Dow Chemical Co., he learned that we all have leadership roles to play. He enjoys discussing new ideas and sharing practical ways we can all become better leaders.

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  1. Stephen Evanoff

    May 27, 2010


    Thanks for reminding us that better contingency planning is needed, at all levels, from airlines and oil companies to individuals. I think the information age has contributed to a false sense of security. We think the world around us has become more predictable, now that we get all the information we need when we need it. Who needs to plan, right? Wrong.

    My lesson from the volcano is to revisit two conventional management techniques in our operations: EHS risk assessment and emergency response plan exercises. These two activities can help us identify and prepare for the unanticipated.

  2. Brent Ross

    May 28, 2010

    Every time I try to “ash proof” my career it feels like an NFL team going to a prevent defense. The goal is not to succeed or win but to “..not lose”. This can be just as hazardous to the career. When you become more concerned about protection and contingencies it becomes harder to become innovative and be a value to your company. Which is the ultimate ash proofing.

    With that said there are many innovative people who have shown great value that get laid off. It is good to develop skills, internal and external relationships and keep a wetted finger raised to the political winds.

  3. Carol Bois

    May 28, 2010

    Alex – I think the “ash” situation is an example of a wake-up call on many fronts (the recent BP disaster in the Gulf, another significant one). My first reaction is not one of “how can we plan to deal with such an event” but rather, how can we design our lives (careers, too) to be flexible enough, when something like this happens, to adjust to the circumstance. So – rather than “ash-proof” – how about those smart folks who took the “long way home” and went to Spain (unaffected by the ash), maybe had a few cervezas and made some new friends on the way, used the opportunity to slow down and explore – they eventually got to the same endpoint (Home) but learned to get around the problem by being creative. Similarly – as hard as it is to face change, acknowledge that we all have to do so, and that it’s in our best interests to be as flexible and creative as possible to diminish the angst associated with unforeseen circumstances.

    On a larger scale – seeing the effects of the ash on commerce, work, lives, etc. should make us reconsider how our society(ies) has (have) come to be so reliant on air travel for unsustainable methods. I learned that flower farms in Africa couldn’t send their roses to Europe – waaa! that seems ridiculous! How can we re-adjust agribusiness in Africa to provide for its own people rather than have them shut down economically when planes stop flying? (http://www.enn.com/business/article/41236)

    So – regarding a career – cultivate programs/behavior in the long run that have inherent worth to your company – and if the company does not respond in kind , hope that another more enlightened company elsewhere will see the light and want you and your forward-thinking programs also!! Or – start your own business as an alternative.

  4. peter kugel

    July 14, 2010

    Congratulations with this interesting discussion.

    In my capacity as co-editor of the European Journal of Risk Regulation (EJRR), I herewith also draw your attention to the ‘mini syposium’ in the current issue on the European regulatory response to the Volcanic Ash Crisis and the use and abuse of expert knowledge in safety regulation, .

    Please feel free to contact mee if you require further info.

    Best wishes,
    Peter Kugel
    Attorney at law (Brussels)
    +32 473 12 66 03

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