Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

Monthly Archives: November 2014

Career Advice

Jobs-Steve-1When I give talks at conferences I am sometimes asked by younger process safety professionals for advice as to the career path they should select. I avoid answering their questions because (a) I am not qualified to do so, and (b) it is difficult to talk thoughtfully in the  informal and rushed atmospheres that prevail at such meetings. Nevertheless, as we enter the Age of Limits it is only reasonable that individuals should consider their career options, so I thought that I would use this post to jot down a few thoughts on the topic. As always, feedback is appreciated.

As I have said many times, I am not a fortune teller — I do not know what the future holds (and neither does anyone else) so any thoughts on this topic have to be very general in nature. All I can say is that I am certain that many changes are ahead — and not all of them will be pleasant. Therefore, when considering career decisions I suggest that the biggest pitfall to watch out for is an assumption that the future will be a linear continuation of the present and that tomorrow will look very similar to today. Such an assumption leads to the risky conclusion that the right career choice for current times will be the right one for the world of 20 years hence.

Steve Jobs (1955-2011), who knew all about succeeding in a changing world, once said,

. . . you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

In last week’s post — Jack of All Trades — we outlined five traits that many process safety professionals possess and that could help them in careers in an Age of Limits. They were:

  1. Systems thinking;
  2. The ability to handle uncertainty;
  3. An understanding that the laws of physics trump those of economics;
  4. Integrity of language; and
  5. Numeracy

Using the above list as a starting point I have outlined below five features of the engineering or safety job of the future based on the assumption that we are entering an Age of Limits and that what worked in the past may not be so effective in the years to come. The five features are:

  1. Make stuff;
  2. Shop locally;
  3. Simplify;
  4. Think holistically;
  5. Be adaptable.

But before developing these concepts it is vital to keep an eye on the value of safety. What has happened in recent years is that more and more companies are saying, “Safety is its own value, independent of other values”. They do not trade off safety and production, even both are values; safety always wins. (For this reason I tend to be cautious about concepts such as ALARP – As Low as Reasonably Practical Risk – because they suggest that we have to accept at least a base line of injuries and fatalities. As discussed in The Newness of Safety maintaining this concept of Safety as a Value is going to be a major challenge for the next generation of engineers and safety professionals. The reason being that, until now ,moneys for safety programs have generally been available if the justification is strong enough. We may be entering a time when such moneys are not available — no matter how strong the justification may be.

Make Stuff

Crude-Oil-Hands-1In our post Pop Quiz we noted that the oil refining business supports a large number of people who often actually know very little about the refining business itself. These intermediaries include:

  • Insurance agents;
  • Conference organizers;
  • Bankers;
  • Shop stewards;
  • Blog writers;
  • Instrument manufacturers;
  • Tax collectors;
  • Book publishers
  • LOPA analysts;
  • Attorneys;
  • Engineering professors;
  • Shipping schedulers; and
  • Human resource specialists.

All of these people may make their living from the refining industry but most know very little about it. One of the questions in the quiz was, “Have you ever had crude oil on your hands?” It is doubtful that more than just a few of the people listed above can answer “Yes” to that question.

As industry becomes more local and simpler there will be less need for intermediaries and less money  to pay them. Hence the people working at a refinery, for example, will be expected to directly contribute to the manufacture of refined products. Any job that involves optimization or writing reports or conducting analyses is going to have less and less value. One way of looking at this is to suggest that jobs that consist mostly of typing symbols into a computer screen will be both less useful and less secure than they are now.

No-SubstituteIn this context  there is really no substitute for industrial experience. It is one thing to learn about a topic from books and videos but it is quite another to  learn from the school of hard knocks. Industrial experience includes not only a hands-on knowledge of industrial processes and equipment, but also an understanding of the realities of client/consultant relationships, the resistance that managers have toward spending money on safety, problems at the management/union interface and how government agencies actually enforce regulations.

Shop Locally

The poet John Donne told us that, “No man is an Island, . . . , /And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls/It tolls for thee.” His point is that we are all part of many communities — at work, at home and in our social life. When someone dies a little piece of us dies with them.

An industrial process, such as a refinery, can be seen as being part of a larger community — and in the modern world that community is often global. Equipment and instruments are manufactured on the other side of the world, education is carried out through international webinars, customers are everywhere and constantly changing and the enterprise is supported by a bewilderingly large array of support services from a wide variety of sources.

As resources become less available it is likely that many of the complex supply chains will crack and that these highly specialized support services will either disappear or become too expensive to sustain. Increasingly, industry will have to draw upon local resources and services. Hence a successful professional will develop a network of relationships with other people and companies in the local area. He or she can then use that network to help keep his own facility running safety and smoothly at a time when operating conditions are difficult. That network can also be used to find local customers for the products that his company makes.


In the Jack of All Trades post we introduced Joseph Tainter’s chart to do with complexity.


His argument is that complex societies, such as ours, react to problems by increasing complexity. This is an effective strategy if that society is in the left-hand section of the curve, i.e., if the incremental benefits from the action are greater than the incremental costs. However, if a society is on the right hand side of the curve then responding to problems by adding complexity is just the wrong thing to do. The immediate problem may be solved but the system costs associated with the action exceed the benefit.

We have already quoted Steve Jobs once. Here’s another of his insights.

That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

The concept of simplification can be applied to career choices in an Age of Limits. When an engineer has to choose between two courses of action it is preferable to select the one that uses the fewest resources, that is simpler to operate and maintain and that does not require high levels of specialized skill from the operations and maintenance personnel.

Think Holistically

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies Joseph Tainter quotes Hardin, “We can never do merely one thing”. Tainter goes on to say, ‘. . . good intentions are virtually irrelevant in determining the result of altering a large, complex system. With the feedback relationships inherent in such a system, one can almost never anticipate the full consequence of any alteration.’ This insight is often summed up in the term ‘The Law of Unanticipated Consequences’.

When resources are plentiful it is possible to correct unexpected and unwanted changes caused by system feedback. However, if resources decline it will be more difficult to do this. Therefore the person who is able to anticipate changes and who can add resilience to a system in anticipation of problems will be particularly valuable to his or her employer. The work of a person who thinks and works holistically is not limited to a single, narrow detailed specialized sphere; instead he can understand management, technical and human systems, and how they interact with one another.



It is often thought that Charles Darwin used the phrase ‘Survival of the Fittest’ to explain his theory of evolution. In fact the term was created by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). However a better term to explain evolution is ‘Survival of the Adaptable’. The following quotation has also often been incorrectly attributed to Darwin, but it still makes sense.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

In the context of employment in the industries of the future, I suggest that it is those who are able to understand the changes that are going on around them and can then adapt to those changes will flourish whereas those who are merely ‘fit’ to conduct today’s activities well will find that their contributions will become less valuable.

One aspect of adaptability will be the ability to cope with unpleasant surprises. Someone who is adaptable will swing with the punches when they find that a critical spare part has not arrived or that the electrical grid is increasingly erratic. He or she will come up with short and medium-term fixes to problems such as these.

Jack of All Trades


California Drought

California Drought

In last week’s post we discussed the drought situation in São Paulo, Brazil. It turns out that this is not the only part of the world suffering from the effects of no rain and a sinking water table. In parts of central California the situation is even worse, as reported by the New York Times.

The lesson to be learned from situations such as these is that resource limitations go beyond Peak Oil — many other finite resources, of which water is probably the most important, are declining to the point where irreversible shifts in the way that people work and live are taking place.


And now on to this week’s post.

This series of posts is to do with “Engineering in an Age of Limits” and the problems and challenges that society faces and, more specifically, how they will affect industry. However simply listing the problems and difficulties is a discouraging and rather pointless exercise; engineers and safety professionals have an opportunity and a responsibility to suggest means of responding to these difficulties — in particular making sure that the concept of Safety as a Value is not lost. Moreover, the qualifications and work experience of many engineers and safety professionals are such that they can become leaders to a much larger community.

In order to grasp the range of issues that we face it useful to list the titles of the posts that have been published so far in this series and to examine the number of topics already covered.

  1. In The Newness of Safety we showed that the concept of “Safety as a Value” is a cultural artifact, one that was developed in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The challenge that all engineering professionals will face in coming years is to ensure that that ethic remains unchallenged.
  2. In Nine Pounds of Gold we showed that the absolute quantity of a resource (whether it be gold, oil, ground water or anything else) is is not what matters when we are determining how much of that resource can be economically extracted from the earth. It’s a rate, not a quantity, function.
  3. Thinking the Unthinkable demonstrated that technological progress is not a given and that regress can and does occur. Hence safety professionals should be cautious about relying on technology to solve their problems.
  4. Pop Quiz used the refining industry to note how many people who actually know very little about the oil business nevertheless make their living from it. It showed how complexity adds cost and suggests that the best way of making industrial systems safer is to make them simpler.
  5. We Hope It Rains discusses the opportunity and responsibility that engineers and safety professionals have to communicate the facts to do with the issues that we face.
  6. Jack of All Trades (this one)

The variety and range of the topics is the reason for the selection of the title for this post: Jack of All Trades but Master of None — a phrase that is normally used in a pejorative sense. It indicates that the person in question knows something about many things but is not an expert in any one topic, and hence that person cannot be fully trusted to do a job right. Hence, so conventional thinking goes, it is better to bring in a specialist. But, as with every proverb or slogan, there is an opposite saying — in this case: “An expert is someone knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” In a world where resources are plentiful it makes sense to divide tasks into narrower and narrower parcels with each parcel to be handled by a specialist. But in an Age of Limits it makes more sense for activities, including safety activities, to be managed by generalists. And it in this area that many safety experts excel.

Listed below are the attributes of this ideal person.

  1. Systems thinking
  2. Handling uncertainty
  3. Physics, not Economics
  4. Integrity of language
  5. Numeracy

1. Systems Thinking

A key skill that a safety professional possesses is that he or she is rarely an expert in some particular field of technology — instead he is eclectic, he has a grasp of the big picture and thinks holistically. Too much expertise in one particular area of safety can actually be a handicap. In other words, effective safety management is based on systems thinking, not technical specialization. These skills are going to be of supreme importance in the years to come. Safety professionals understand that an industrial facility consists of a vast web of inter-connected systems, some to do with equipment, some with management processes and others to do with people/human factors. The overall system needs to be thought about holistically, as illustrated by the following quotation from Process Risk and Reliability Management.

The elements of process safety have strong interaction with one another — it is not possible to meet the requirements of one of the elements without considering its effect on the others. The inter-connectedness of the elements can be illustrated by considering the development of an Emergency Response Plan, in which the following sequence of actions may occur.

  • The writing of the Emergency Response Plan requires a knowledge of which hazards have to be addressed.
  • Consequently, a Hazards Analysis is required to identify the hazards.
  • In order to be able to carry out the hazards analysis, information from sources such as P&IDs and MSDS is needed. Much of this information is included in the Knowledge Management program.
  • Once the Emergency Response Plan has been developed, it will be necessary to Train everyone in its use.
  • The Emergency Response Plan has to be Audited on a regular basis.
  • During the training process, those being trained will come up with ideas that will improve the quality of the emergency response plan. This is Workforce Involvement.
  • After going through the Management of Change step these ideas can be used to upgrade the emergency manual.

2. Handling Uncertainty

A professional’s first responsibility is to frame a discussion with facts. This issue was discussed in last week’s post We Hope It Rains. The facts to do with issues such as oil depletion, droughts and increasing debt are well established. The catch is that all true scientific statements are hedged with qualifications. We cannot be totally sure about these topics; it is possible that, in the next few years, we will discover multiple oil fields that have a high ERoEI, are readily accessible and that produce enormous quantities of low sulfur crude. It’s possible, but highly unlikely.

But if an issue has say a 95% probability of occurring as determined by a large majority of qualified scientists then it is the height of irresponsibility for someone to say, “There are some uncertainties in the findings of this report, therefore I choose to ignore its conclusions. I will go with the 5%.” If it then appears that such a statement is used to justify a lifestyle that consumes large amounts of energy or that is highly polluting then one has strong reasons to doubt the integrity of the speaker.

Related to the above issue is the topic of belief. People will say that “they do not believe” in something. There is nothing wrong with this — we all have beliefs and value systems; they are an essential part of who we are. What is wrong is to distort facts to justify such beliefs, i.e., to cherry pick a few facts that are contrary to the general conclusion and thereby create factoids. An example is the recent drop in crude oil prices from around $110 to $80/barrel. This does not really tell us anything about the supply of crude oil in the ground — for that  the only figure that matters is the cost of extracting the next, incremental barrel. And that value continues to increase apace. Nevertheless the factoid of lower prices at the pump could be used to justify the purchase of a gas-guzzling vehicle.

3. Physics, not Economics

Many discussions on these topics focus on human and social parameters such as politics, economics, human factors and personal relations. But such discussion should always be grounded in the hard realities of thermodynamics, physics and geology. If we create fiat money but do not increase the goods available to match that new money then we have not created real wealth.

No matter what we think, Nature Bats Last.

4. Integrity of Language

Another role that engineers and safety professionals can play is to make sure that language, particularly technical language, is used correctly. Not only does this reduce the chance of misunderstandings it helps mitigate emotion, wishful thinking and statements of belief. A simple example to do with language concerns use of the word “production” as applied to the crude oil. We do not “produce” oil — we extract it. And once it is gone, it is gone. Crude oil is a non-renewable resource. Extracting oil from the ground is analogous to making ourselves richer by spending our savings, not by creating new sources of income.

Gas-Gauge-1Another example of the sloppy use of words can be seen in the phrase ‘Energy Crisis’. The person who uses those words is generally saying that we are running out of energy and that therefore our society will eventually grind to a halt unless we come up with an alternative. But a moment’s reflection shows that the term really does not make sense. The First Law of Thermodynamics tells us energy cannot be created or destroyed (leaving aside nuclear reactions)  — energy can only be changed in form. Therefore there cannot be an ‘Energy Crisis’; hence any program designed to solve this ‘crisis’ is likely to lack focus at best, and be a waste of time at worst.

Perpetual Motion Machine

Perpetual Motion Machine

A related example of the misuse of language concerns the word ‘Sustainable’. It is thought that if we recycle waste materials we can develop an ecological perpetual motion machine. But this cannot be: the Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us so. Whenever we do any kind of work, including recycling waste materials, the entropy of the overall system will increase. No activity is truly sustainable.

This does not mean that we should not recycle — but it does mean that we should be realistic about the meaning of the words that we use.

5. Numeracy



W. Edwards Deming (1900-1993) famously said, “In God we trust, all others must bring data”. This is a concept that most engineers should be comfortable with. One example of this trait has already been given in Nine Pounds of Gold., which introduced the concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI), the units of which are very simple: Joules / Joules. It is a dimensionless number (the Reynolds number which helps define the degree of turbulence in a flowing fluid is another widely used dimensionless number).

The use of numbers helps resolve “I think / You think” disputes.

Liberal Arts


Harold Bloom

We have just outlined some of the attributes that the ideal engineer would have when discussing issues to do with the Age of Limits. There is one area, however, in which most engineers and safety professionals are not all that strong, and that is the use of the liberal arts, particularly history, to provide an understanding for what they are seeing and doing.

Those who read these posts will have noticed that we often draw analogies between what is going on now and what has taken place in earlier times. Like all analogies these comparisons break down if pushed too far, but they do provide a useful framework in which to think issues through. And we have frequently stressed not only the importance of being able to write creatively but also on knowing How to Read and Why.

Survival of the Fittest


Herbert Spencer

The above phrase was coined by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in the year 1864 after he had read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In the context of this post’s discussion a better term might be “Survival of the Adaptable”. None of us know what changes are ahead of us but it is our responsibility to look facts in the face and not indulge in wishful thinking or hoping for the best. Those of us who understand the changes and can adapt to them will have the most success in maintaining the highest standards of safety and the well-being of the organizations that we work for.

We Hope It Rains


We had a strong response to last week’s post: Pop Quiz to do with excess complexity. If you did not get a chance to do so I strongly recommend that you view Joseph Tainter’s video Why Societies Collapse — And What it Means for Us. He has also published a book entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Tainter-Joseph-1For myself there were two take-away messages from the video. First, societies that are already complex tend to solve specific problems by adding further complexity thus creating yet more problems to solve. An example of this, as illustrated in the post Nine Pounds of Gold is the concept of Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) —  the costs associated with extracting a particular resource are greater than the benefit provided by that resource.

In the case of safety a technical team may take the actions needed to resolve a particular safety issue only to find that the safety of the overall facility has gotten worse.


Even Mario Draghi , President of the European Central Bank, seems to recognize the problem. He states,

“If — for a young entrepreneur — it takes months in some countries before he can have the permits [and] the authorizations to open a new shop, he will not ask for this credit.”

In other words simply making credit available to new businesses is not enough. If the business people feel deterred by the presence of too many intermediaries, each of whom requires payment (fee, tax, salary, whatever), then that business person will not bother to make the effort.

The second message in Tainter’s video was, in some ways, even more disturbing than what he says about over-complexity. He shows how developments in all areas of technology are slowing down. I had written the post The Newness of Safety before viewing the Tainter video. But when I heard what he had to say it explained much of what I had written — particularly the sense that we do not always progress and that, indeed, regress often takes place (witness the abandonment of the manned space program and the peak of airline travel speeds in the year 2003).

Bringing these thoughts back to the world of industrial safety, it would suggest that (1) We should strive for solutions that make systems simpler, and (2) We should not rely on technical developments to maintain and improve safety standards.

And so — on to this week’s post.



My attention was caught by an op-ed written by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times (“The World Is Fast” 2014-11-04). In it he alludes to the likelihood of severe water shortages in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. “South America’s biggest and wealthiest city may run out of water by mid-November if it doesn’t rain soon. São Paulo, a Brazilian megacity of 20 million people, is suffering its worst drought in at least 80 years, with key reservoirs that supply the city dried up after an unusually dry year.” The article goes on to attribute the problem to global warming, deforestation of the Amazon basin and the conversion of local forests to farms. Given the severity of the crisis one would expect that the local and national authorities would be taking urgent action. Evidently this is not the case. Friedman writes that the actual response is, “we hope it rains”.

File photo of a view of the Jaguari dam station, with record low water levels in Braganca Paulista

The decision to deny the problem was made consciously even though there has been no lack of information to do with the severity of the drought and its consequences. For example, immediately prior to the recent elections in Brazil, the news agency Reuters ran the following headline.

Eyeing elections, drought-hit Sao Paulo resists water rationing

Friedman wonders why such denial occurs and suggests that it is, “Because the implications of acceptance are so significant, and we know in our hearts there’s no going back once you end denial.” Although this insight may be true there are other reasons for denial. Indeed, the article itself exhibits its own form of denial by dodging a critical issue: one way or another the standard of living of the people of São Paulo is going to take a hit. If the city truly does run out of water then there will be widespread and serious suffering: businesses will close down, people will lose their jobs, infectious diseases could spread and emigration from the city is likely. But even if the city’s residents choose to take action it is likely that they are going to suffer some hardship anyway; they will have to voluntarily cut back on their water consumption, they will have to pay taxes to upgrade the water supply system and they will need to change their current strategy of replacing native forests with farms. Denial is much easier and cheaper.

If the problems of denial were limited to just one city then there would be little to worry about. But the reality is that the response of the good citizens of São Paulo is near universal. People everywhere choose not to think about the issues associated with the Age of Limits. The reasons for this are basically emotional. Which means that the response to situations such as Friedman talks about has to address feelings — a mere statement of facts will make little headway. (One way of developing such a response is by telling stories as discussed in other posts, including That would be telling.)

Having said which any response to the issues that we face has to be based on fact and logical analysis. And this is where engineers and safety professionals can make a contribution. They are trained to to go where the numbers take them, to think rationally, to make careful analyses of objective data that are presented to them and then to provide rational, sensible and defensible recommendations.

Examples of this approach with regard to resources (oil reserves), the environment (global warming) and economics are provided below.
In discussions to do with the world’s supply of oil statements on the following lines are frequently heard, “We will never run out of oil — there are billions of barrels in the ground, we’re good for hundreds of years.” The objective response to such a statement is to note that oil availability is not a function of quantity but of economic rate, as discussed in Nine Pounds of Gold. What matters is not the amount of oil in the ground but the cost (in terms of barrels of oil, not dollars) of extracting the next, incremental barrel.

The facts to do with oil extraction costs are demonstrated in the following two charts. The first, which is taken from the Wall Street Journal, shows the enormous amounts of money that oil companies have spent on exploration in recent years — yet their production has been flat, even down a little bit.


The second chart shows similar data. Capital expenditure on oil exploration since the year 2000 has soared by a factor of five, yet production is declining at a rate of 5% per annum.


Facts need to reviewed in context — they are always part of a larger system. For example, the recent fall in the price of crude oil may indicate that oil is becoming more plentiful, maybe due to the increased extraction rates in the United States. But a glance at the oil price picture over the last twenty years (see below) shows that the recent drop to around $80/bbl is probably not significant — similar drops have occurred in the past, and the price of oil is still about 300% higher than it was in the year 2000.


Moreover news stories to do with the strategies of the Saudi Arabian government suggest that there are some explicitly political factors in play. Nevertheless, if the price of oil stays down that may be an indication that fundamentals have changed and that our economy has entered a deflationary phase, which would be very bad news indeed.


The topic of oil reserves can generate an emotional response but it is technical enough to make most people somewhat cautious in their statements. The same cannot be said about global warming — a topic creates an enormous number of subjective and tedious “I believe/I don’t believe . . .” responses. One reason for this difficulty is that the time scale is long and there are so many variables in play. It is easy to cherry-pick data and to ignore the big picture.

One way of addressing these concerns is to cite authorities that are recognized and accepted. For example, the chart below is from NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) — an organization that is associated in most minds with putting men on the moon and hence is highly credible. Therefore, when they show that global temperatures have risen 1.2ºC (2.2ºF) since the year 1910, as demonstrated in the following chart, they are likely to be believed.



Although oil reserves and climate change can be addressed with some pretty solid facts we are on much thinner ice when we look at the vexed topic of economics: the dismal science. But even here there are data that provide a basis for discussion. For example, the chart below shows Debt/Gross National Product trends for the United States. It is clear that individuals and businesses have been taking on more and more debt in the last thirty years. Whether taking on this debt is justified is a discussion for another time. But the chart does show that we are creating debt that will have to be paid back one day. This is a worrying conclusion given that the repayment will have to be funded by an oil-based economy, yet the cost of extracting oil continues to rise.



Simply having the correct facts lined up is going to do little to help “win” a discussion/argument. People view the world subjectively. Their opinions and beliefs are shaped by factors such as upbringing, friendships and life experiences and hope for the future. When presented with information about the world we all try to make that information fit our world view. Frequently people will use the words “I believe” to preface their opinions. To respond to a belief with facts that contravene that belief will generally have the opposite effect to what was intended. People experience cognitive dissonance and become defensive and respond by cherry-picking facts that support their point of view. They are basically not concerned with determining the truth — they merely want to demonstrate that they are right.

But, as the saying goes “Nature bats last”. No matter what we think or believe the laws of thermodynamics, geology, evolution and physics are what they are. It is our responsibility always to look the facts in the face and to take actions based on what those facts are telling us.

As we enter the Age of Limits we suggest that engineers and safety professionals have both an opportunity and a responsibility to provide the public with sensible, rational and factually accurate information. They will also need to analyze that information in a credible manner, particularly if the information suggests that conditions, such as the water supply to São Paulo, could get worse.

Pop Quiz


Here is a pop quiz for those who make their living from the oil refining business.

Question #1
The refinery that provides you with your salary/consulting fee/taxes/contract payments processes 75,000 barrels of crude oil (12,000 m3) per day. How long will it take to fill the tank shown in the picture?

  1. 100 days
  2. 10 days
  3. 1 day
  4. 1/10 day
  5. 10 minutes

Question #2
Crude-Oil-Hands-1Have you ever had crude oil on your hands?

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. I don’t even know where to find some crude oil to put on my hands.
  4. That would be contravening HSE rule 33.121.§H(c).subpart(iii).
  5. What is crude oil?

Question #3
What is your reaction to the picture on the left?

  1. I use one routinely.
  2. Oh dear! They are so 1980s. Our new instrument systems measures level every hundredth of a second to an accuracy of ±0.01%. What planet have you been living on?
  3. What is it?

There are no “correct” answers to the above questions but the following responses indicate that you are a true refinery worker.

  1. About one day
  2. Yes
  3. Routinely (it’s a strapping tape)

But consider all the other people who work in the refining business (or at least derive their income from it).

  • Insurance agents;
  • Conference organizers;
  • Bankers;
  • Shop stewards;
  • Blog writers;
  • Instrument manufacturers;
  • Tax collectors;
  • Book publishers
  • LOPA analysts;
  • Attorneys;
  • Engineering professors;
  • Shipping schedulers;
  • Human resource specialists;
  • and so on and so on.

I have absolutely no idea how many of the people in the above list could answer the three questions “correctly” but I would be surprised if it were more than one in a thousand. In other words the refining industry has become very complex and has attracted to itself a host of specialists who make a living off it but who are not actually directly involved in the production of gasoline or other refined products. And, of course, these comments do not apply to just the refining business. Any technical activity — drilling for oil, manufacturing chemicals, pipeline operation — you name it, gathers around itself a constellation of peripheral activities and actors.


Growth in the number of these support activities (and the corresponding decline in actual production work) is quite a recent phenomenon. I grew up in northern England. My early childhood memories are of shuttered wool mills: one at the top of our street, the other at the bottom. I also have memories of the stories that my grandparents would tell of what it was like to work in those mills. But, in spite of the silence of those mills, there was quite a lot of active industry in the area — not least the magnificent steam trains. But a couple of years ago I returned to northern England; I took a train from Manchester down western Lancashire to Wales. This used to be an industrial heartland. But the only “factory” that I saw on the whole journey was a building that had something to do with re-packaging toys. I also


I also visited the Glasgow Museum of Transport. It was very interesting and I recommend a visit, but ultimately it was so dispiriting that I wanted to leave. The exhibits all seemed to have the same message regarding industry in the Glasgow area.

  • Here are steam engines that we used to make (but we don’t do that anymore);
  • Here are ships that we used to make (but we don’t do that anymore);
  • Here are the motor cars that we used to make (but we don’t do that anymore);
  • Here is a view of the Glasgow Harbour (but there are no commercial ships in it).

The following is from an earlier post, A Magnificent Navy on Land.



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.


One has to wonder how modern-day English and Scots will survive in a world where they actually have to make something rather than merely provide services to one another.

The thread that runs through the above discussion is complexity. The ability of a wide variety of service-providers to make a living from refineries is an example of complexity even though refinery activity is diminishing; ; the ability of entire nations to largely de-industrialize but still remain reasonably prosperous is another example.

But there are limits as to the benefits to be gained from increasing complexity. The chart below, which is taken from Joseph Tainter’s book The Collapse of Complex Societies, shows that there comes a point when increasing complexity actually leads to reduced incremental benefits. (A series of videos of Professor Tainter explaining his ideas is available here. The videos also explain the diminishing returns that we obtain from modern scientific developments.)


John Michael Greer explains the issue of too much complexity in his description of the modern health care industry.

. . . we’ve long since passed the point at which additional investments in complexity yield any benefit at all, but the manufacture of further complexity goes on apace, unhindered by the mere fact that it’s making a galaxy of bad problems worse. Do I need to cite the US health care system, which is currently collapsing under the sheer weight of the baroque superstructure of corporate and government bureaucracies heaped on top of what was once the simple process of paying a visit to the doctor?

He goes on to say that the health care industry is not unique in its tendency to solve overly-complex problems by adding further complexity.

We can describe this process as intermediation — the insertion of a variety of intermediate persons, professions, and institutions between the producer and the consumer of any given good or service.


The situation is reminiscent of Kafka’s novel The Castle. And we need to face the reality that most safety professionals fall into the category of intermediaries. They provide a valuable service to the process industries but often they do not actually make anything or even contribute directly to the making of anything. However, as the Age of Limits starts to bite — they, like all intermediaries — will find it increasingly difficult to find funding from the refineries and other industries because those industries will be struggling just to keep production going.

Therefore, when looking to improve safety, it is important to recognize that,

  1. Adding complexity adds cost.
  2. Adding complexity leads to diminishing returns.
  3. Irrelevance.

1. Complexity Adds Cost

The first of these issues — that additional complexity adds costs — is evident from the length of the above list of professionals who are paid by the refining industry but who do not actually make gasoline.

For example, when faced with the challenge of preventing large accidents the reaction of many safety specialists is to develop models of the system being studied and then to generate case studies. This analytical work is, in and of itself, highly complex. It involves hiring specialists, training them in the company’s safety procedures, organizing computer facilities, training managers to understand the final report, and so on and so on. Moreover, the recommendations resulting from all this analytical work are likely to result in yet more complexity to be added to an already complex system.

The safety specialists need to understand that such an approach makes sense only if  that industry can pay for the added complexity. If the industry cannot make that payment (where payment is measured not in dollars or euros but in barrels of oil) then solutions of this type merely make a bad situation worse.

But the difficulties to do with increased complexity are more troublesome than mere cost. One of Tainter’s most disturbing observations is, “Complexity in problem solving causes damage subtly, unpredictably, and cumulatively”. What he means by this is that solving one problem can have unpredictable and often negative effects on the entire system. It is an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. For example safety programs can themselves actually reduce overall safety. A sub-system is made safe at the expense of the overall system. The following are examples from the offshore oil and gas industry.

  • A maintenance technician was replacing stair treads (a routine task) in order to ensure that no one slipped when walking on the stairs. During the course of his work the technician fell through a gap in the stairs and died of his injuries.
  • A technician was preparing to stop a very small leak that was creating a near-trivial environmental problem. As he was setting up the task a drain valve fell out and he was seriously injured.
  • It was found that actually launching lifeboats during evacuation drills was hazardous. Indeed, in one such drill a man died.

2. Diminishing Returns

Even if an activity does not increase overall complexity and/or cost too much, questions need to be raised about its value. Safety work, like every other human activity is subject to the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Another Pop Quiz

Which single invention did the most to save lives in American industry? I don’t have documentation to answer this question, but I have heard it is the item shown in the picture below (which I took about ten years ago).

Knuckle Coupler

The answer is the knuckle coupler, invented in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Prior to this invention men had to go between rail cars to connect them. This was very hazardous since they could get dragged along if the train moved or they could be crushed between the buffers. The new coupler allowed two cars to connect automatically — the worker could stand to one side and stay out of danger.

In our time there are no low-hanging fruit or easy-pickings of this sort — all the simple/high reward actions have been taken (something else alluded to in the Tainter video).

3. Irrelevance


We have already referred to the post A Magnificent Navy on Land in which we suggest that, if we increase safety regulations and standards, we will have magnificent safety management systems, but no industry to manage. In other words there is little point in developing highly sophisticated and complex safety systems that result in the host company being driven out of business. The source of wealth disappears — we kill the golden goose.

In conclusion, it was suggested in the first post in this series — The Newness of Safety — that safety professionals will challenged in coming years will be to maintain the ethic of “Safety as a Value” in a time of shrinking resources. But the above discussion suggests that safety professionals will have to achieve that goal without adding complexity to the system that they are working on. In fact, it will be in their best interests to make systems simpler. Hence we reach the following conclusions.

  1. The industrial systems that we operate are complex.
  2. Our safety programs are frequently complex.
  3. We solve specific problems by adding more complexity, not realizing that we have made the overall system more prone to failure.

A much sounder approach is to respond to problems by making systems simpler. Some thoughts as to how this can be done, and what the broader implications of such an approach may be, will be provided in subsequent posts.