Quality Magazine

Key to Quality: The Sea Lawyer

August 24, 2009

For 20 years, I served in the United States Navy Nuclear SUBSAFE program. Fifteen of those years I spent as a Level III ASNT TC-1A Examiner in the visual, magnetic particle, liquid penetrant, ultrasonic and radiography testing methods. The U.S. Navy Nuclear SUBSAFE program was a high-stress work environment. Each day we performed repair, modification and overhaul of U.S. Navy submarines.

One day, someone asked me how I was able to survive in this type of work environment, and I replied that it was due in large part to my becoming a “sea lawyer.” It was only after spending time on a newly commissioned submarine tender in San Diego that I came to realize the only way I could survive was through the sea lawyer method.

As a young sailor, I felt that I had no say in what was going on, and marveled at the knowledge that some people possessed, until I was given a well-kept secret by a lieutenant commander with whom I had an argument-an encounter that changed my life forever.

As the division commander was escorting the lieutenant commander out of the nondestructive testing laboratory on the ship after our argument, the lieutenant commander threatened to get even with me. About two weeks later, I received a call to report to his office. I remember saying to myself on the way down to his office that this was payback time.

As I stood in front of the lieutenant commander, he proceeded to tell me how much he disliked me, and that he would never like me. However, he needed my help. He said he was being tasked to establish the nuclear systems repair department, which would achieve certification to perform nuclear repairs within three months. He needed a leader and a work coordinator who was intelligent and respected by the enlisted workers. I told him I did not believe it would be good for me to work with him. He said that if I did work with him, he would teach me everything I wanted to know about nuclear submarines and support me 100% in my decisions. However, if I made a mistake, he would come down hard on me.

Shortly after I accepted his offer, his knowledge and mentoring was a light in my life, and one of the techniques he shared with me was the proper use of and interpretation of standards, and specifications. The sea lawyer was a title I gave myself early in my career, and later spent four years teaching this valuable technique to students at the Navel Sea System Training Center, and continued to use throughout the rest of my career.

I found that by understanding standards, specifications and the hierarchy of directives, I could accomplish what others could not. As in the law of the land, there was the law of the sea, and in the U.S. Navy the rules were established and orders handed down from the president of the United States (commander in chief) to the secretary of the Navy, and all the way down to me.

It was during this time that I also realized that the sea lawyer method could be used in corporate policies, manufacturing, fabrication and even government agencies. Here, I will use fabrication standard requirements as an example.

Fabrication standards are important because they contain all pre-engineered acceptable workmanship and fabrication requirements. We all know that engineers design and architect the system, but a non-engineer can determine if the engineer’s drawing is correct in relationship to the fabrication document.

For example, if I’m working on a super heated steam-piping system to run a turbine for the U.S. Navy, all I need to know is how much steam pressure, temperature and volume is required. I can then verify the piping system and material of pipe, its criticality class, its acceptance criteria, the welding requirements and joint designs, the inspection method and objective evidence required to document the completeness and acceptability of the installation.

The lead document is the bible of fabrication, which can solve any vague or ambiguous work instructions. Both the MIL-STD 278 and AWS D1.1. documents define from start to finish all necessary requirements for fabricating a specific type of work. AWS D1.1 is a fabrication document in the commercial structural document, and MIL-STD 278 is for piping, machinery, pressure vessels, castings and forging for U.S. Navy ships.

These are similar documents because they give specific instructions for workmanship, welding, machining and materials. These documents also give directly or reference specific acceptance criteria, requirements for fabrication, methods of inspection, workmanship requirements and many other important fabrication requirements.

Fabrication standards are just one example of how the sea lawyer method can be applied in today’s NDT environments. It all comes down to your ability as an NDT professional to properly use and interpret standards and specifications.