Toward a resilient organization: The management of unexpected hazard
on the polar traverse
Aude Villemain
, Patrice Godon
University of Reims, Research Center on Work and Development (CRTD), Laboratory of Ergonomics, CNAM, Paris, France
Paul Emile Victor Institute (IPEV), France
article info
Article history:
Received 21 October 2015
Received in revised form 31 January 2016
Accepted 8 March 2016
Available online xxxx
Organizational resilience
Safety management
Polar conditions
Unexpected events
Proactive–reactive adjustments
The aim of this research is to understand the organizational resilience through the safety management
when unexpected events occurred, on an atypical transport environment, the polar traverse. Three polar
traverses were studied, one of which being a detailed case study. Thus, ethnological observations over
3 year periods from 2012 to 2015 (to understand the traverse logic, functioning through unexpected
event) and all-day interviews during a traverse (to understand actions and strategies of organizational
resilience to cope unforeseen events) were collected. The main results, from quantitative and qualitative
analysis, indicated (1) mechanical, organizational and both interventions allowed to face unexpected
incidents on the traverse, (2) great possibilities to take actions on the convoy organization enabled to
develop a pro-active management of the safety in alternation with reactive adjustments; (3) the impor-
tance was to preserve the machines functionality even if operators have to face environment hostility to
repair; and (4) the variation of the convoy organization was permanent in its whole even if the incidents
concerned only one road track. The strategies of organizational resilience building will be discussed in
this article, around the proactive–reactive management, the organizational dynamic, the risk evaluation,
and the risk taken to preserve the room manoeuver.
Ó 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
The term « resilience » can sometimes, in certain cases, be
reserved for the management of unexpected disturbances « which
exceed the anticipated areas of adaptation » (Lundberg and
Johansson, 2006, 2007; Woods, 2006, 2009). A system is resilient
if workers adapt themselves by understanding the context in
which adaptation takes place. Adjustments are thus constantly
made by individuals and organization, even if they are more often
approximate rather than exact (Hollnagel, 2012). Every organiza-
tion is stretched to operate at its full capacity and, to be resilient,
a system needs to be able to anticipate whatever may happen,
monitor what is going on, respond effectively when something
happens, and learn from past experiences (Hollnagel, 2009;
Woods and Cook, 2002; Woods and Hollnagel, 2006). Conse-
quently, the organizational resilience strategies are questioned to
understand how a system could adjust itself to disturbances or
unexpected hazard.
One of the main objective of researches focused on the strate-
gies of organizational resilience is to understand the organizational
preconditions conducive to a safe performance (Pidgeon and
O’Leary, 2000). Some studies emphasized the need for proactive
measures in safety management, while proactive manner invested
in safety and resource allocations to safety improvement are key
factors in ensuring a resilient organization (Dekker et al., 2008).
Reactive adjustments are, by far, the most common ones. Short
terms responses are not enough to guarantee a system’s safety
and survivability. One reason for this is that the system can only
be prepared to respond to a limited set of events or conditions
and over a limited period of time. The reactive approach quickly
appears too restrictive (Daniellou et al., 2009; Hale and Heijer,
2006), as this new way of conceiving safety is of little interest if
it only reacts to events and does not anticipate them (Dekker,
2006; Hollnagel and Woods, 2006; Westrum, 2006). Consequently,
the proactive vision of resilience is therefore essential when aimed
at the prevention and adaptation of a system to changing condi-
tions prior to the occurrence of undesirable events (Hollnagel,
2006, 2008, 2009; Leveson et al., 2006; Morel et al., 2008;
Westrum, 2006; Woods and Hollnagel, 2006). Proactive adjust-
ments, however, mean that the system can change from a state
of normal operation to a state of readiness before something
0925-7535/Ó 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Corresponding author at: University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne, UFR STAPS,
Campus Moulin de la Housse, Bât. 25, Chemin des Rouliers, BP 1036 - 51 687 REIMS
Cedex 2, France.
E-mail address: (A. Villemain).
Safety Science xxx (2016) xxx–xxx
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happens. In this case, resources are allocated to match the require-
ments of the expected event and special functions may be acti-
vated. The Safety Management System (SMS) is interested in this
problematic, considering the fact that organizational and manage-
ment factors have to be taken into account to understand human
contribution to major accidents (Hale and Hovden, 1998). SMS is
the most efficient way of allocative resources for safety regarding
which organization plays a major role. Supplementary resources
are mobilized and local strategies are deployed to cope with distur-
bances. This is « opportunistic bricolage » which is a way to offset
the disturbances and maintain the functioning of the system at
the lowest possible level of risk. It is a safety measure deployed
by human expertise, as well as the use of specific individual and
collective skills in real time, as previous studies in polar context
have already shown (Villemain and Lémonie, 2014; Villemain
and Godon, 2015).
Studies focused on extreme situation at work are poor in the
ergonomics approach, and even more so in polar context. Few
researches in polar conditions have been led in a logistics thematic
in arctic (Lièvre, 2007). At the present time, only our researches on
working conditions in the Antarctic context working are being car-
ried out with an ergonomics approach (Villemain and Lémonie,
2014; Villemain and Godon, 2015). To conduct research in such
conditions requires a specific methodology to collect data because
of the harsh conditions. Subsequently, the ethnographical method
is the most appropriate to the ground constraints (Rix-Lièvre and
Lièvre, 2010). These authors used this kind of method in order to
study ski polar expeditions in arctic through ethnological observa-
tions and interviews.
The context and motivations of this research are particular and
require to be specified. The French polar traverse, initiated in 1993,
was followed by the creation of the scientific French–Italian station
on the Antarctic continent called Concordia (situated to 1150 km
from the French station Dumont D’Urville (DDU) and opened in
2005). At that time, the objective was to design a freight and mate-
rial transport mode, in order to build the station, from DDU (car-
ried by boat until this station) to Concordia. Thus, the issue then
was a technical, material, technological, logistical and economical
challenge. The traverse has been explored more from a technical
point of view than a safety aspect, only guided by an experiential
or empirical observation. In Antarctica, the environment hostility
does not facilitate human activities, more particularly when those
take place outside such as mechanical task to repair machines.
During the traverse, temperatures can be below 50 °C in Febru-
ary. Thus, in this context, the smallest incident, if not managed
immediately, can bear heavy consequences and become dramatic
due to a limited medical assistance and the isolation. The vital
prognostic is quickly engaged.
The polar traverse could be defined as a set of vehicles in move-
ment in the polar continent, with a total autonomy. Eleven days are
necessary to reach Concordia from DDU. Three return-trips DDU–
Concordia are organized during the austral summer (between
November and February). The convoy is composed with about
ten persons, with a minimum of seven mechanics and one doctor,
three (snow trains), seven machines, three levelling machines, and
loads are consisting of fuel tanks and containers (see Diagram 1).
The logistical traverse has to carry freight to Concordia with both
quantitative and qualitative criteria, as quickly as possible and con-
suming as little fuel as possible. Today, twenty-two years after the
first traverse, no human loss has been reported since the traverse
was set up.
During about twenty-three days for a return trip, traversers will
cross the white-ice desert living in a caravan and driving eleven
hours per day. The traverse will be punctuated with mechanical
incidents considered as unexpected events. All raiders know that
incidents will happen during the traverse. Thus, in that way, we
can consider that such situations are not unforeseen. It is however
impossible to determine which kind of incident, when (in bad
weather conditions), neither how and which consequence such sit-
uations will entail (pieces to repair or not? Know-how or experi-
ence to face the event?) nor where exactly in the convoy, which
material, etc. In this regard, such events can be considered as
unforeseen... Everybody knows that this will have incidents, but
nobody knows exactly which ones. The real risk rests more in
the incident conditions per se than concerning the unforeseen
event in its current form.
Thus, in this context, the goal of the research deals with the sys-
tem capabilities to withstand shocks or unexpected events, and to
face harsh conditions every year, in order to answer the question
regarding strategies of organizational resilience used to ensure
the safety in a productive system. In the case of the traverse, ‘‘un-
foreseen” can be considered as a risky situation, jeopardizing the
traverse group during a limited period of time, thus calling on
the resilience abilities of this system. What is the nature of the
unforeseen situations on the traverse? What solutions can be
found? What strategies of organizational resilience can be
deployed? To investigate these questions, we rely on the operative
logic to manage risks during the traverses when unexpected events
occurred. An explanatory study was conducted over three com-
plete traverses (return trips) from which we gathered in situ data
in real and dynamic situation to understand how the unforeseen
events were managed, ensuring the organizational resilience of
the system. Firstly, an analysis of the unforeseen events will be
presented, as well as the solutions offered. Secondly, a single tra-
verse will be used to present a case study to understand the role
of the operators and the organization to act in the management
of unexpected events and strategies deployed.
2. Method
2.1. Tools and procedure
The methodology used was, firstly, aimed at describing and
characterizing the unforeseen events on the polar traverse and,
secondly, at conducting ergonomic analysis of operators’ activities
when the unforeseen situation occurred in particular. The method-
ology chosen was to analyze immediately operators’ activity in
unforeseen and natural situation during the traverse and their
interventions by means of observations in so far as, in such situa-
tions, the event is not necessarily known and neither are the tech-
nicians who are likely to intervene. As mentioned by De La Garza
(2000), troubleshooting activities, by nature unannounced, make
it impossible to define accurate observation conditions. Conse-
quently, the ergonomic analysis of operators’ interventions only
concerned the three polar traverses studied. Nevertheless, particu-
lar attention was paid, whenever possible, to the potential transfer
of this methodology to other risky environments.
Using both à quantitative and a qualitative approach, data were
gathered over a 3-year period from 2012 to 2015. Participating eth-
nological observations were carried out from immersion work
(note taking, films, photos). On board the outward and return trips
of the convoys, the goal was to experience the traverse from the
inside, (a) to understand exactly what unforeseen event referred
to (the nature of unforeseen events), (b) to access proposed solu-
tions without hindering the work in progress and (c) to understand
the various actions undertaken during the traverse which could
impact the management of unforeseen events and strategies of
organizational resilience employed by operators. The methods
used were the following: (1) firstly, objective and quantitative data
relating to the unforeseen events encountered were identified, in
order to proceed to a categorization of events (Amalberti, 1996).
2 A. Villemain, P. Godon / Safety Science xxx (2016) xxx–xxx
Please cite this article in press as: Villemain, A., Godon, P. Toward a resilient organization: The management of unexpected hazard on the polar traverse.
Safety Sci. (2016),
Considered as unforeseen events were those, which required a
complete and unforeseen halt of the convoy or a delayed departure
with regard to the starting point. It was studied as a stop sign of the
normal process (Hollnagel, 2010). To begin with, ground data were
collected when the unforeseen events occurred, such as the date
and the time of the unforeseen events, the length of time the con-
voy was stopped, the GPS location, the nature of the unforeseen
event, and the nature of the solutions put forward. The goal was
to understand the conditions of the occurrence of the unforeseen
events as well as the intervention logic of the traverse members
in the management of the unforeseen events, but also to compared
by experience the difference between ‘‘normal situations” and ‘‘un-
foreseen situations”; (2) secondly, equipped observations (by
notes, audio–visual recordings) of the raiders’ activities when an
unforeseen events occurred to keep an update of the strategies
deployed by the system and operators to deal with the distur-
bances; Monitoring these operators’ activities would allow imme-
diate interventions to be observed in real world setting; and (3)
thirdly, interviews were collected in situ, each day throughout
the traverses, with the leader of the convoy involved. Thus, the
chronological order of events on the day (hour by hour) was
respected during interviews in order to trigger the memory. The
aim was to try to understand each action carried out and the
strategic operational actions to respond to unexpected incidents.
2.2. Analysis
In a first time, all data from each traverse were transcribed and
compiled so as to give meaning to the management of the unfore-
seen events in the form of matrices to document each unforeseen
event produced and each action carried out during the traverse.
In a second time, analyses of interventions on the three traverses
were led from a temporal reconstruction of the raiders’ course on
the basis of all the data. This reconstruction combined a temporal
structure (history of the intervention on the unforeseen event) and
a functional structure (real work activities of the operators). Vari-
ous elements contributing to this history were then investigated
(in verbalizations and equipped observations) in order to better
understand the global organizational logic. In a third time, verba-
tim and all usable data were categorized using a thematic analysis
(Corbin and Strauss, 2008) with frequencies of categories for each
unforeseen situation. Moreover, the position of the unforeseen
events was converted and then transcribed onto a traverse route
map (Diagram 1). The traces collected during the traverse were
documented (Tables 1 and 2) highlighting the day, the observa-
tions, the interventions, and the length of the intervention.
2.3. Reliability
In this study, the data was validated in four steps: (1) the notes
taken during the three traverses were transcribed, sorted and orga-
nized according to three ideas: all the actions carried out during
the traverse commanded by the convoy leader, the unforeseen
events per se, and the solutions applied. We therefore retained
all the information consistent with these 3 preoccupations. Two
investigators analyzed material following the procedures recom-
mended by Miles and Huberman (1994). Each investigator read
the transcripts and individually encoded them following this pro-
cedure; the reliability between judges was verified and the agree-
ment rate was 100%; (2) the notes from the informal interviews
(for the traverse 50, the case study) were transcribed, presented
and discussed with the convoy leader of the traverse when there
was disagreement until it was clarified; (3) the final results
obtained, for the three traverses and including the traverse 50
and notably concerning the nature of the unforeseen events as well
as the actions implemented, were presented to the designer of the
traverse who validated them, according to his great experience;
and (4) thematic units concerning operators’ interventions to cope
unforeseen events were categorized. The agreement rate was 95%
and discrepancies were discussed until agreed upon.
3. Results
The results are presented in 2 parts. In the first part, objective
and quantified dimension with figures and regrouping the data
from all three traverses are presented in order to understand the
organizational resilience with a global perspective. They aim to
show all the interventions carried out on the traverse, consecutive
or not to breakdowns. The objective of this approach is to under-
stand the nature (a) of the unforeseen events; (b) the interventions
proposed; (c) the actions carried out during the traverses linked to
the management of the unforeseen events. In the second part, a
single traverse will be presented as a case study in order to attempt
to extract a strategic operational understanding from it with a
specific point of view born of action and activity. For this, an expla-
nation of the composition of the convoy during traverse 50 is
described, as well as cartography of the unforeseen events. Each
unforeseen incident, the intervention proposed as well as the
Diagram 1. Composition of convoy at the start of the traverse.
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Table 1
Types of incidents, interventions and length of interventions of the traverse 50.
Days Observations Interventions Length
Traverse outward journey
1 Speed of ST1 too slow Attachment of grading machine 8 to aid with traction 10 min
2 Hose (2) Repair 1 h 15 min
Alternator (2) Repair 20 min
3T°C high exhaust level (10) Modification of convoy 20 min
Broken tank hook Abandon modification of convoy 10 min
Hydraulic motor (K1) Repair 2 h 15 min
Command ventilator (K4) Repair 1 h
6 Off-track, tank stuck in snow Fuel transfer convoy modification 3 h
7 Broken tank hook Dumping tank convoy modification 20 min
8 Injectors (2) Irreparable machine loaded onto 2 h
Sledge convoy modification
9 Control blade (K4) Repair 1 h
Alternator belt (K1) Repair 30 min
10 Starter (10) Repair 6 h
Torn sheet metal container Convoy modification 30 min
2 off-track incidents Intervention (X2) 2 h
Total: 20 h 40 min
Traverse return
1 Valve blade (K2) Repair 40 min
2 Headlights (K3) Repair 20 min
Broken caravan hook Repair 1 h
Leak in power generator Repair 10 min
Infiltration of exhaust fumes in cabin (6) Repair 20 min
4 Headlights (11) Convoy modification 20 min
Hydraulic motor ventilation (K2) Irreparable machine loaded onto sledge convoy modification 2 h
5 Leak of radiator cooling liquid (9) Repair 20 min
Starting (9) Repair 10 min
6 Wheel unscrewed when Caterpillar leaving (9) Irreparable machine loaded onto sledge convoy modification 1 h
Lack of power ST1 Convoy modification 20 min
7 Door handle broken (10) Repair 30 min
Drawbar broken Repair + convoy modification 2 h
8 Flexible + command blade (K1) Repair (2) + convoy modification 1 h
Lack of power (10) Convoy modification 20 min
Pistons (K1) Repair + convoy modification 20 min
Total: 10 h 50 min
Table 2
The convoy re-organization to repair and anticipate the future.
Observations ST1 Interventions
Speed too slow Hitching of grading machine 8 to tow (day)
Hose (2) Mechanical intervention
Alternator (2) Mechanical intervention
Off-track, tank stuck in snow Organizational intervention
Broken tank hook ? reparable but not carried out 1. Abandon tank
2. Recuperation of a tank from ST2 ? relief
3. Machine mounted on transport ski in ST2
4. Modification of convoy (8 tractor on ST1)
5. Recuperation of a tank from ST2
Injectors (2) Irreparable
Observations ST2 Interventions
T°C high exhaust level (10) 1. ST2 tank in ST1 following broken hook
2. Pumping of ST2 tank
3. Tank in RT1 following machine on ski
Tank hook broken (end of day) ? reparable but not carried out 1. Pumping tank ST2
2. Abandon tank ST2
Command ventilator (K4) Mechanical intervention
Command blade (K4) Mechanical intervention
Starter (10) 1. Mechanical intervention (6h)
2. Pumping tank ST2
3. Abandon tank ST2
2 off-track incidents Organizational intervention
Observations ST3 Interventions
Hydraulic motor (K1) Hydraulic motor (K1)
Sheet metal container torn => irreparable 1. Modification of convoy in 4 trailers with the container hitched to 8 (ST4)
2. Modification of position of machines between STl and ST3
3. Modification of position of grading machines: all in front of ST1
Alternator belt (K1) Mechanical intervention
Observations ST4 Interventions
Off-track incident Organizational intervention
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Safety Sci. (2016),
length of the latter, will be analyzed in order to better understand
the strategies of organizational resilience developed.
3.1. Objective and quantified dimension to understand the resilience
On the three traverses carried out, we identified 95 unforeseen
events, that is to say 95 regulatory actions following the occur-
rence of a hazard.
3.1.1. Five kinds of unforeseen events
The results indicate the existence of five types of unforeseen
events provoking a temporary stop of the convoy or its delayed
departure (Fig. 1):
Stalling of the tractors (15%) arising either from increased trac-
tive effort following the sinking in snow of the loads or because
the loads stayed stuck to the ground at morning startup, or from
a lack of grip of the tractor itself because of the surface being too
Breakdowns (58%), which concern mainly the machines, the
generator set.
Breakages (16%), which concern the hitches for items being
Bad weather (8%), which only allows reduced visibility in the
best of cases and a circulation with special headlights to
increase the contrast.
Off-track incidents (3%), linked to inattention or to falling asleep
at the wheel, following which the loads sink into the loose snow
because the skis left the compacted track.
3.1.2. Mechanical, organizational solutions, or both
The results indicate that these unforeseen events can be regu-
lated in three ways (Fig. 2): by means of a mechanical intervention
(53%), by an intervention on the organization of the convoy (orga-
nizational) (40%), by a mechanical and an organizational or com-
bined intervention (7%). Although mechanical interventions are
in the majority, actions on the organization of the convoy are an
undeniable lever in the management of the unforeseen events. Sev-
eral interventions combine both to ensure the repair and also pre-
vention to relieve trailer hitches. An action on the organization of
the convoy is most of the time to act as a support for the repair,
for the mechanical intervention performed. Modifications to the
convoy can also be carried out instead of a repair, if the targeted
part is irreparable and does not exist in the stock of spare parts.
When we look at the nature of the interventions according to
the type of unforeseen events, it can be observed that the break-
downs and breakages are managed by three types of intervention
(Fig. 3). Organizational interventions are carried out whatever
the type of unforeseen event.
3.1.3. Other organizational actions carried out on the traverses to
anticipate incidents
In total, we identified 143 actions performed during the three
traverses for 95 unforeseen events. These results suggest that other
actions were performed independently, or at least indirectly, to the
occurrence of the unforeseen events. The actions identified corre-
spond to the organizational interventions: if 44% of the actions
were performed following the unforeseen events, 56% of these
actions were not consecutive to the occurrence of the events
(Fig. 4). It is very likely that these peripheral actions play a funda-
mental role in the management of unforeseen events.
3.1.4. The organizational game
The organizational modifications during the traverse and non-
consecutive to the occurrence of an unforeseen event meet two
objectives with regard to the lever of action chosen: first, an objec-
tive of breakdown prevention by acting on the position of the
machines in the convoy (Fig. 5). It is possible to « play » with the
Bad weather
Fig. 1. Nature of unforeseen events on the traverses.
Fig. 2. Nature of interventions following the appearance of unforeseen events.
Fig. 3. Nature of intervention for each type of unforeseen event on all 3 traverses.
Fig. 4. Distribution of organizational interventions on the traverses.
Organizaon of
the machines
Organizaon of
Organizaon of
Organizaon of
road trucks
Fig. 5. Possible variations in the organization.
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Please cite this article in press as: Villemain, A., Godon, P. Toward a resilient organization: The management of unexpected hazard on the polar traverse.
Safety Sci. (2016),