Wednesday, October 11, 2017 / Perth Australia / By Niekie Jooste
In this edition of "The WelderDestiny Compass":
What do the following have in common?
They are all examples where technical professionals made the wrong choices. I know it is never as simple as blaming an individual, or even a few people, for disasters. There is always a lot more happening behind the scenes. Never-the-less, if all the technical professionals involved with these instances did the right thing, then those catastrophes or scandals would not have happened.
The list above is just a very short list of thousands of examples I could have used, but they are relatively fresh in people's minds, so I have used them.
At a time when technology is rapidly shaping our world, the moral dilemmas facing us, as technical professionals, will just get bigger. As technical professionals, our knowledge and experience is often relied upon to make sure that products and structures are safe and reliable for those that use them.
Today we stop to think of our own role in making this new technological world a safer place for everyone that will use or interact with the safety critical products and structures that we have a hand in designing and constructing.
If you would like to add your ideas to this week’s discussion, then please send me an e-mail with your ideas, (Send your e-mails to: firstname.lastname@example.org) or complete the comment form on the page below.
Now let's get stuck into this week’s topics...
I have watched a number of documentaries regarding major industrial accidents, and one factor stands out as a major contributor to the disasters. It can be summed up in two words: External Pressure.
In the case of the Challenger disaster, the engineer from the booster rocket supplier did not want to sign off on the launch, because the weather was too cold. The cold weather had the potential to cause embrittlement of the rubber seals that were used to seal the different sections of the rocket casings. If those seals failed, then the safety of those booster rockets would be seriously compromised. Unfortunately the press coverage of the event placed a lot of pressure on the mission management to deliver the spectacle that the world was waiting for. It was, after all, the first "civilian" that would be sent to space.
The mission management in turn placed a lot of pressure on the booster rocket supplier to give the go-ahead. After much delays, and a lot of emotional pressure, the engineer finally capitulated and gave the go-ahead. It was a fatefully wrong decision. While we can feel that the pressure placed on the engineer was unfair, he is none-the-less the person with the necessary knowledge, and therefore the one that must take the blame for the accident.
But, what if the engineer stuck to his guns and refused to give the go-ahead until all the operational conditions were fully met? Would he be a hero today? Unlikely! The problem is that we seldom know when we have managed to dodge a bullet, so nobody would have known that he had saved everyone's lives. In all likelihood he would have developed a reputation as an inflexible egotist, and been sidelined in future missions. Who said life was fair?
This bending to external pressures, whether they be production, financial or reputational pressures, is ever present in our lives when we work in industries where safety critical decisions are often made. When I feel this type of pressure on me, I always ask myself this question: If something should go wrong and people are injured or killed, and I need to explain my decision to a court of law, will it sound reasonable? This is the good old "reasonable man test". The problem is that once the worst has happened, in hindsight a reasonable man would have done a hell of a lot!
The next time you feel "external pressure" to turn a blind eye to quality problems or sub-standard workmanship, I recommend that you also apply the "reasonable man test" to your decisions.
When asked to perform some specific task, or implement some specific risk reduction activity, I often hear technical professionals such as welders say that they have done jobs without those specific activities many times before, and the vessels, pipelines or off-shore structures are still standing.
To us, if we did something in the past that seemed to have worked, we automatically think that means that the way in which we did it was obviously good enough. The problem with this thinking is that our world view has been distorted by a limited perspective.
As an example, off-shore structures such as oil and gas platforms are designed for an extended life. Say 25 years. Only after 25 years can we say that the structure was designed and built adequately. Just because it lasted 10 years, does not actually mean that it is OK.
Another factor is that such structures are designed for extreme events, such as 10000 year storms or waves, or fires or explosions. Most structures will never actually see their full design conditions, so even if it managed to get to its 25 year design life, it still does not mean that it was OK. We can make such a decision if it survived to its 25 year design life after having also survived 10000 year storm conditions and fires and explosions.
A further factor that is often not appreciated is that the design approached to structures can vary. In the case of some structures, less engineering is done in defining the expected stresses and quality of workmanship. In such cases, the structure is "over designed" to compensate for such lower engineering inputs.
Other structures are however subjected to much higher levels of engineering input to define the operational loads and greater fabrication quality is assumed during the design. Such structures have much lower "over design" applied, so the fabrication quality becomes much more important.
It is not always applicable to draw conclusions regarding past practices to new projects. Maybe sub optimal fabrication and quality practices have not lead to failures, simply because we have been lucky so far.
The problem is that if we push our luck too far, too often, then we will end up being unlucky!
As technical professionals working in safety critical industries such as oil and gas, petro-chemical, aerospace, automotive, shipping, energy, large structures etc. we hold people's lives in our hands. Such a responsibility does not need to freeze us with fear, because the practices and structures to ensure the delivery and operation of these safety critical products and structures are well known.
For us, the challenge is not necessarily to forge new paths in terms of risk management. For us the challenge is to stand strong in the face of opposition to employing those risk management strategies that we know are important. In addition, the challenge is to understand that the world we live in is an uncertain place, dominated by statistical processes. Just because something disastrous has not happened, does not mean that it cannot happen. It could just mean that so far the statistics of life has treated us kindly. In other words, we may have merely been lucky.
When lives are in your hands, best not to rely on luck too much!
Yours in welding
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Have you been subjected to pressures to turn a blind eye to sub-standard work? Do you have a good story of how standing up to external pressure saved the day? Please share your stories, opinions and insights regarding today's topic.