Engineering in an Age of Limits

Discusses the role of engineers as society enters an Age of Limits — particularly with oil supplies.

A Magnificent Navy on Land


HMS Dreadnought in Dry Dock

Parkinson’s Law

In the year 1955 Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) published an article entitled Parkinson’s Law (later issued as a book under the same title). One of his “laws” is,

The size of the administrative staff will increase at a rate between 5.17 per cent and 6.56 per cent, irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.

One of the organizations that Parkinson examined in order to reach his conclusions was the Royal (British) Navy between the years 1914 and 1928. The original page from his article is shown below.Parkinsons-Law-1

The data show that, in the period under review, the number of capital ships (large fighting ships) in the navy decreased by 68% and the number of men at sea decreased by 32%. However, the number of dockyard workers increased by 10% and number of office workers (Admiralty officials) increased by 78%.


Cyril Northcote Parkinson

Parkinson recognized that some of the increase in land-based workers can be attributed to the higher levels of technology, which may explain the increase in the number of dockyard officials (they were the ones who designed ships in those days). But he goes on to say,

From this we might be tempted to conclude, provisionally, that the rate of increase in administrative staff is likely to be double that of the technical staff at a time when the actually useful strength (in this case, of seamen) is being reduced by 31.5 per cent. It has been proved, however, statistically, that this last percentage is irrelevant. The officials would have multiplied at the same rate had there been no actual seamen at all.

He uses the above data to justify the term, “A magnificent Navy on land” and concluded that eventually the Royal Navy would have more admirals than ships.

The Process Industries

Parkinson based his “laws” on observations of two declining organizations: the Royal Navy (discussed above) and the British Colonial Office, which increased in size in direct correspondence to the decline in size of the British Empire to the point where the maximum number of Colonial Office workers was reached when there were no colonies at all.


Jim Ratcliffe

In our times two industries in decline are chemicals manufacture in Europe and the oil business worldwide. With regard to the European chemical industry the open letter from Jim Ratcliffe, Chairman of INEOS, to Mr. Barroso of the European Commission states,

I wish to express my deepest concerns about the future of the European chemical industry. Sadly, I predict that much of it will face closure within the next 10 years . . . 

In the UK we have seen 22 chemical plant closures since 2009 and no new builds . . .

I can see green taxes, I can see no shale gas, I can see closure of nuclear, I can see manufacturing being driven away.

The world-wide oil industry also appears to be in a gradual, but irrevocable decline, as illustrated in a recent Wall Street Journal article dated January 28, 2014. The article starts with the following quotation,

Chevron, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell spent more than $120 billion in 2013 to boost their oil and gas output — about the same cost in today’s dollars as putting a man on the moon.

But the three oil giants have little to show for their big spending. Oil and gas production are down despite combined capital expenses of half a trillion dollars in the past five years. Each company is expected to report later this week a profit decline for 2013 compared with 2012, even though oil prices are high.

The problems that they discuss are illustrated in the following chart. which provides an excellent illustration of ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) as discussed in Nine Pounds of Gold.


Implications for Process Safety Management 

For those of us who work in the process industries Parkinson’s Law can be rewritten as follows,

The number of specialists, learned papers and meetings to do with process safety will increase at a rate of between 5 and 6.5% per annum regardless of the rate of production of chemicals or energy. This Law is true even if the industry produces nothing at all.

Although such statements are written tongue-in-cheek the real lesson is crucial. Those of us who make a living off the process industries must recognize that, if the industry ceases to exist, then our livelihood will also disappear (eventually).

For many years the mantra of our industry has been, “Safety First” — as it should be. But this is not quite the same as, “Safety First at Any Cost”. If an industry itself is facing long-term decline, and even extinction, then there has to be real understanding of how to balance safety and production.

I cannot recall the number of papers and articles I have read (and even written) which discuss the tension between safety and production — they generally conclude that the two activities can work in harmony and that they can complement one another. But an implicit assumption behind these discussions is that the industry itself will continue to exist and that it will continue to generate sufficient growth and profits to fund process safety work. If that assumption is wrong, if the oil and chemical industries literally disappear, then process safety programs become merely an intellectual exercise.

Parkinson categorized the Navy workers of the 1920s into three groups: active sailors, dockyard workers (including designers) and office staff. In the modern process industries a similar division can be applied. There are those who actually make the chemicals or oil that people need; then there are those that design and upgrade the process facilities; and finally, there are the office workers. And virtually all process safety specialists fall into this third category. They include consultants, regulators, writers of blog pages, professors, developers of vapor dispersion models, authors and auditors. A few of these people are involved in the design function (Parkinson’s second category), but virtually none of them actually make anything.

The implication of this analysis is clear. It will be increasingly necessary for process safety professionals to explicitly justify their work in terms of production and profits. It will not be sufficient merely to say that, “A safe plant is a profitable plant”. The linkage will have to be unambiguous and overt.


One response to “A Magnificent Navy on Land

  1. Pingback: 16. Greek Gifts | Engineering in an Age of Limits

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