Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

The Newness of Safety


Child Labor

Child Labor

We are starting a new series at this blog. The theme is “Industrial Safety in an Age of Limits”. The series will be developed around the following parameters:

  1. In the modern industrial world safety is a value, but this value was adopted only as the Industrial Revolution gained traction. The concept of safety as a value is a cultural artifact — it can come and it can go.
  2. Exponential growth on a finite plant cannot continue; we are reaching limits. Non-renewable resources such as oil and water are disappearing and our capacity to absorb waste such as CO2 in the atmosphere and acid in the oceans is reaching a limit. We are coming to the end of a 300 year fossil fuel party.
  3. Progress is not inevitable — regress can happen. Over the course of the last 200 years or so there has been immense progress in improving industrial safety — but continued progress cannot be taken for granted. There is no law that says that safety cannot deterioriate.
  4. The fundamental challenge facing safety professionals in coming years will be to ensure that safety remains a value. In order to do they will need to learn about non-technical topics, particularly history and literature. Historical patterns do tend to repeat, if not exactly. “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.


Safety Slogan

Safety Sign

Those who work in industry are repeatedly told that safety is the most important part of their work. Slogans such as the following are part of their mental furniture,

  • Safety a culture to live by.
  • Safety is a frame of mind – So concentrate on it – all the time.
  • Safety is not a job; it is a way of life.
  • . . . and so on.

Egyptian-Pyramid-Workers-2Slogans such as these are saying, “Safety is a Value” — indeed, it is the most important value of all. But we need to recognize that this has not always been the case, as the picture to the right shows. In it we see Egyptian laborers building the Pyramids; they are cutting stones, hauling them to a new location and then lifting them into place. In a modern safety culture we would expect these workers to be wearing as a minimum: safety shoes, safety glasses, hard hats, gloves and sturdy clothing. Instead they seem to be dressed in loin cloths, and little else. And it is doubtful that they were wearing sunscreen, in spite of the climate.

Safety as a Value

We take it for granted that safety in the workplace is a goal that does not have to be justified — it is its own justification. Safety is a value — the highest value. It’s an attitude that seems to be baked into our genes. We know that some work places are safe and some less so. We even understand that some managers are hypocritical, and merely talk a good game. But we never find a company where managers say, “Safety doesn’t matter.” Yet such an attitude was not always prevalent. The idea of safety as a value actually only came into existence at the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

A similar shift in attitudes with regard to slavery took place at around the same time. Until the late 18th century slavery (or related systems such as serfdom and indenture) was a set feature of life in many countries. And yet, quite suddenly, it was challenged on moral grounds by visionaries such as William Wilberforce and Frederick Douglass.

Patrick Henry

Patrick Henry

Yet for all of the legitimate moral outrage to do with slavery prior to the industrial revolution many of the most enlightened people of the time held on to slavery — they could not see any alternative if they were to maintain their comfortable standard of living. For example, in the year 1773 Patrick Henry — “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” — wrote a letter to John Alsop, a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Would any one believe that I am master of slaves by my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not — I cannot justify it, however culpable my conduct.

We see the same lack of direct action on the part of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). He was a tireless advocate for freedom in general and was active in stopping the slave trade. But he never quite got around to running his own estate at Monticello, Virginia without slaves.

So why did safety and slavery become values during the course of the 19th century given that neither had been a priority in the thousands of years leading up to that time? It would be good to think that the industrialists and politicians of the day suddenly developed a moral and ethical awareness that had not been present in any human society heretofore. But the fact that these two systems were challenged at the time of the Industrial Revolution suggests that something else was going on — it would appear as if industrialization itself created an environment in which it was possible to see safety as a value. As for slavery, wealthy people such as Henry and Jefferson no longer needed human slaves — they could use machines to provide the cheap labor that they needed to maintain their life styles. And the same argument can be applied to the growth of safety as a value.

Of course, the Industrial Revolution brought with it its own horrible safety and health problems. One group of people who helped improve working conditions were authors such as Charles Dickens (1812-1870). For example, with regard to the fictional Coketown he writes,

They [ the industrialists ] were ruined when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke . . .

Here is his satirical description of the manner in which the poor were treated,

. . . they established the rule that all poor people should have the alternative (for they would compel nobody, not they) of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the waterworks to lay on an unlimited supply of water, and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal, and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sundays. They made a great many other wise and humane regulations . . .

Gradually the situation started to improve. For example, the industrial revolution was powered by the steam engine. Boiler explosions occurred  frequently, but when they did the response was local — there was no overall systematic study as to how to prevent such explosions. By the start of the 20th century the number of industrial accidents had risen to unacceptably high levels. For example, between the years 1870 and 1910 at least 10,000 boiler explosions occurred in North America; by 1910 the rate was 1,300 to 1,400 per annum. In response to this unacceptable situation the newly formed American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) published its first boiler code in the year 1914.


Boiler Explosion

Economics of Safety

The above discussion suggests that safety is a cultural artifact that becomes a value only when there are sufficient economic resources available. If this is the case then there are three ways in which this support occurs.

  1. The technology for safety equipment becomes available.
  2. Safety becomes affordable; the goods produced by the machines created a surplus that allowed new activities, including safety, to be funded.
  3. Safety becomes its own economic justification — a facility that is safe is also profitable.

Technology for Safety

The first of the economic shifts discussed above — technology for safety equipment — is more or less self-evident So, the reason that Egyptian pyramid builders did not use hard hats was that hard hats had not been invented.

The picture below shows a factory in England (it is taken from a promotional video published in the year 1954). The men are pouring steel into molds. None of them are wearing any type of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and many of them have their shirt sleeves rolled up.

Pouring Steel

Pouring Steel

It is easy to criticize this group of men and the management of the company that they worked for. But many of the PPE items that we take for granted now were not available then. For example, the plastics used in modern safety glasses had not been invented. The only safety glasses that they could use had lenses made of reinforced/toughened glass. They were heavy and not all that effective.

Safety Becomes Affordable

The second observation that we can make with regard to changes in safety in the last 250 years is that it has become more affordable. A key feature of industrial society is that it produces a surplus of all kinds of goods. Some of this surplus can be directed toward buying safety equipment and improving safety services, including sophisticated computerized simulations of issues such as fires, explosions and vapor releases and developing codes and standards.

Economic Justification

The third reason for improving safety standards is based on the philosophy that a safe system is also a productive system. If a company can manage safety well then it has in place the systems to manage everything else well.

Reversal of the Value

The above discussion has demonstrated that safety is a cultural artifact and that it was technological advances that provided a means whereby safety could be elevated as a value. But this means that we must address the possibility of the opposite situation occurring; as technological productivity starts to slip due to the resource limitations that we face, so there could be reversion to a time when safety was not a value. So, for example, it is likely that it will not be as easy to obtain money and other resources for safety improvements as it was in the past. Increasingly engineers and safety professionals will be challenged to provide an economic justification for the changes that they want to make. They will also have to show that the proposed action makes economic sense and that it is achievable with current levels of technology.

The fundamental challenge that will face professionals will be to ensure that, in spite of all the changes that are likely to occur, we do not revert to a situation such as that shown in the picture below.

Mine Labor

Mine Labor

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