Every safety, health, or environmental professional deals with situations which illustrate a broader point. One project recently drove home for me a reminder of how little room there is for error in a field where lives are at risk.

This particular project was a complicated asbestos abatement. The renovation work was well underway before testing revealed that fireproofing sprayed on the structural members of the building contained asbestos. Our organization was brought in to do testing, develop an emergency action plan, and perform the necessary industrial hygiene monitoring.

Ninety-nine percent right

Despite the emergency nature of the work, requests from several occupants to save contaminated items, and investigations by two state regulatory agencies, the abatement crew did a great job isolating the area, decontaminating vital equipment and records, removing the accessible fireproofing, and cleaning the entire area. Their performance through 99 percent of the project was exemplary, particularly given the time pressures that developed during the emergency response (construction schedule, displaced occupants, etc.).

One percent wrong

After completing a detailed visual inspection to ensure that all of the accessible asbestos had been removed from the work area, the contractor was left to spray an encapsulant on all exposed surfaces and inside wall cavities that potentially hid inaccessible asbestos debris.

Unfortunately, the encapsulant, a paint-like material, was applied poorly, resulting in obvious drips, runs, and sags on some of the wall surfaces. This mistake resulted in some costly repairs after the asbestos abatement crew left the site. More importantly, it left the building owner with a perception that the entire project was not performed in a professional manner.

When I failed to persuade the building owner that the mistaken last step was an aberration from the performance through the majority of the project, I understood that 90 percent, or 95 percent, or even 99 percent correct in this case was not good enough. Fortunately, in this instance, the error occurred at a stage in the project where the health or safety of individuals was not jeopardized. This margin for error is not present, however, in many other situations faced by safety, health, or environmental professionals.

A gas meter, which measures the air prior to entry into a confined space, that is calibrated and operated properly 99 percent of the time could still result in a fatality upon the 100th entry.

Accepting a standard of 99 percent error-free performance would mean that 466,750 annual takeoffs and landings of commercial airplanes in the United States could end in tragedy.

A light curtain on a power press that operates 99 percent properly means that a worker averaging 200 pieces an hour has 16 chances during every work day to lose a hand or finger.

A laboratory that analyzes 99 percent of its samples correctly could cause hundreds of companies to exceed their discharge permits each year, resulting in increased health risks and millions of dollars in citations.

The safety trainer who teaches individuals how to utilize fall protection equipment correctly 99 percent of the time seriously jeopardizes twenty workers on a large construction crew.

The examples of situations in our industry where 99 percent correct is just not good enough are endless. Safety, health, and environmental activities are a perfect fit for a system of total quality management.

The consequence of allowing our standards to slip in response to monetary or business pressures is the real possibility of loss of life or limb. And don't be fooled into thinking that standards won't slip. Ask any professional who has been called in to turn a program around how easy it is to fall into the cycle of mediocrity, and how difficult it is to convince people to set their sights higher.

Chuck Swindoll explained in his book, "The Finishing Touch," that if goals are not set high, excellent is soon reduced to acceptable, which then slips to adequate, which, before long, settles at mediocre.

It is clear, the lesson is all around us. When you step into the arena of safety, health, and environmental activities, the only acceptable goal is 100 percent.