Human Dread Drives a Scientific and Methodical Approach to Safety


These recent safety-related headlines illustrate the challenges facing businesses and industry in our increasingly risk-averse, but complex environments:

  • In Australia: Dreamworld accident: four dead at Gold Coast theme park
  • In Canada:  Worker’s Critical Injury Results in $54,500 Fine For Food Processor
  • Shocking moment two warehouse staff fall into a lift shaft on a cart: in China
  • 22 fire engines put out factory fire: in Pakistan
  • The Galaxy Note 7 is dead. Samsung now has to save its reputation.

Although it is impossible for system safety to guard against all contingencies, it is expected that business and industry make every effort to be accountable and reliable.  The desire to apply the necessary safety standards is often strong because the alternatives, including injury, death and litigation, pose too great a threat ethically and financially.

Safety processes do try to factor in human failings, such as fatigue or frailty, but with varying degrees of success. Just recently a bus driver picked up a group of elderly passengers, but failed to check that they were all seated before setting off. One dear old lady, using a walking frame, fell to the bus floor and broke her hip.

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Safety processes also attempt to second guess the Law of Unexpected Consequences, but even the most comprehensive approaches will fail to provide safe outcomes when common sense is absent.
French mathematician and scientist, René Descartes, said, “Common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.”  And the more contemporary version: “Common sense isn’t so common around here.”

Fundamental to our shared humanity is our shared vulnerability. This is universal and constant and is part of the human condition. It is this susceptibility which has resulted in the implementation of system safety. But it is also a significant reason driving industries to find ways to exclude people from the equation (to the detriment of jobs).

The emergence of automated technologies in mining – a workplace fraught with danger – is a prime example of safety driven automation. Process and software automation is in use and the application of robotic technology to mining vehicles and equipment is increasing exponentially.

Even the “wunderkind” company Uber may, before long, become irrelevant as self-driving car technology becomes more prevalent. Imagine the knock-on effect it will have on affiliated industries – car insurers, panel beaters……..

But then even robots have their limits.

In 2011 an earthquake caused a considerable tsunami which killed nearly 19,000 people and destroyed the homes and jobs of 160,000. It also led to several meltdowns in Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Highly sophisticated robots were designed to swim through the plant’s cooling pools to remove the melted and lethal fuel rods. As they closed in on the reactors, however, they were rendered inoperable – the radiation destroyed their wiring. Each robot requires significant customization and takes two years to develop and build!

To complicate things further, robotic industrial automation is causing its own unique set of dangers. Manufacturers need to consider how to safely integrate this technology onto a shop floor still populated by workers. Safety focused shop floor Cobots (Collaborative Robots), such as Baxter, aim to make it safe for humans to work alongside robots. But it still has far to go before it becomes the de facto standard.

Complications aside, but driven by industrial growth and change, a career in safety promises to be stimulating and robust. The job opportunities in the industry are multi-faceted with process safety blending engineering, organisational and management skills with risk analysis and measurement, safety design and system construction, operation and troubleshooting. With the industry expanding and evolving it will inevitably attract those who are undeterred by challenge and adept at working in a dynamic environment. 

Thanks to the following sites for their assistance here.