Engineering in an Age of Limits

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

Category Archives: Safety

11. Denying Blackbeard – Part 2

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Post #11. Denying Blackbeard – Part 2

Blackbeard

Blackbeard

Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented them.
What will a post-oil society invent?

This is the eleventh post in the series “Engineering in an Age of Limits”. We are facing limits in natural resources, particularly oil; our finances (money seems to be increasingly disconnected from actual goods and services); and the environment as we continue to dump waste products into the air, the sea and on to land.

We are also facing a transition as the Oil Age comes to an end. This is not the first time that society has faced such a shift. At the beginning of the 18th century the principal source of energy in northern Europe was wood. However the forests were mostly depleted so a new source of energy, coal, had to be developed and exploited. The extraction of coal from underground mines posed new technical challenges particularly with regard to removing the water that flooded those mines. So new technologies, particularly the steam engine, had to be developed. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. These technological developments led to many changes in society, including the creation of the profession of engineering. The transitions that we are currently experiencing as we look for alternatives to oil are likely to generate equally profound paradigm shifts.

In this blog we consider two questions:

  1. What new paradigms, new ways of looking at the world, will develop, analogous to the development of engineering in the early 18th century? and
  2. How can engineers and other technical professionals help navigate the troubled waters that we are entering?

These posts are published at our blog site. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join.

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

  1. Reverse Engineering
  2. Peak Forests
  3. The Mechanical World View
  4. Four Strands
  5. A Journey Part 1 — Twilight
  6. A Journey Part 2— Hubbert
  7. A Journey Part 3 — A Predicament
  8. A Journey Part 4 — Inconvenient Truths
  9. A Journey Part 5 — Bankable Projects
  10. Denying Blackbeard Part 1
  11. Denying Blackbeard Part 2 (this one)

We have also, during the course of the last two years, published other posts to do with these topics. They are listed at our Welcome page.

This post discusses the ExxonMobil company therefore I need to point out, as noted in last week’s post, that, as a process safety and process risk professional (see my site at Sutton Technical Books), I have worked as a consultant and project team member with many of the world’s largest oil companies, including ExxonMobil. I do not own stock in the company.

Introduction

In last week’s post — Denying Blackbeard Part 1 — I reflected on a speech given by Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil. In it he challenged the validity of climate change. Consequently his company has elected not to make a vigorous response to the problem. Yet failure to do so, in my view, will likely result in the oil and energy companies becoming the like Kodak: global leaders that fade quickly due to an inadequate response to radical changes in the business environment. (The first response of Kodak management when informed about the digital camera — invented in 1975 by one of their own employees — was simply to wish that the whole problem would go away, or at least that something would turn up to solve the problem. But the digital camera did not go away and climate change is not going to go away either.)

I also noted in last week’s post that I was somewhat puzzled by the response of the oil companies to their changing business environment for two reasons. First, these companies are well used to taking risk: the decisions that they make to spend huge amounts of money exploring for new wells and then producing the oil and gas from those wells require a high understanding and tolerance for risk. It also means that these companies have well-developed risk analysis models.

The second reason for my puzzlement was to do with their approach to safety — which is one of total commitment and a willingness to put the ethic of safety before profits. People who have not worked for large oil and energy companies may not choose to believe that this it is the case. But the reality is, for many of these companies, safety does indeed come first. Yet climate change is simply another ethic; and, like safety, it is one in which people, both employees and members of the public, take priority over other business goals.

The priority given to the ethic of safety can be illustrated by two examples: the Blackbeard (non) incident and the success of behavior-based safety programs, which we will discuss in a subsequent post.

Well Conditions Were Hellish

The Blackbeard Oil and Gas Facility — Gulf of Mexico

The Blackbeard Facility

The (Non) Incident

In 2005 ExxonMobil and its partners started drilling the Blackbeard prospect in the Gulf of Mexico. It had the potential to be an “elephant field”; initial estimates suggested that the well contained at least 500 million barrels of oil. (The Macondo prospect – see below – held only about 50 million barrels.)

Though located in shallow water (just 70 feet) the well itself was ultradeep. After 500 days and expenditures of $210 million the well depth was at 30,067 feet, within 2,000 feet of its target.  However ExxonMobil was running into problems; at these record depths temperatures and pressures were high: 600°F and 29,000 psig. Well conditions were reported to be “hellish”. They had already experienced one kick — a sudden release of natural gas up the drill string — and were concerned that another kick could not be controlled by the drilling mud and that the Blowout Preventer (BOP) may not have sufficient capacity. In the ensuing discussions as to whether to keep going or not Rex Tillerson sided with the drillers. Exxon wrote off Blackbeard as a $187 million dry hole, even though it obviously wasn’t. At the time it was considered to be the most expensive “dry hole” ever.

In a 2010 interview with the New York Times Mr. Tillerson said,

“There was a pretty extensive discussion between the geoscientists, who wanted to keep going — here they were near their objectives — and the drillers, who were saying, ‘We are just really not comfortable’. We were right at the ragged edge and they felt the risk was too great.

The prospect was later taken over by the company McMoRan. Using heavier equipment and a bigger blowout preventer they reentered the well bore, went down another 3,000 feet, and hit a big payzone. (This does not mean that ExxonMobil had made an error — they simply made the best decision they could with the data available to them at that time.)

Management Lessons

On March 24th 1989, some sixteen years before the Blackbeard decision, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground near the port of Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Eight of the ship’s cargo tanks were ruptured and approximately 250,000 barrels of oil were released. The accident had major environmental and long-term economic consequences (no one was injured). Spilled oil eventually covered 2100 kilometers of coastline.

This event led to a new way of thinking at ExxonMobil. Mr. Tillerson is quoted as saying, “Valdez led to a profound rethinking of safety management at the company.” As a consequence the company developed a rigid system of rules for all its operations, from gas stations to offshore platforms.
Today, Exxon stands out among its peers for its obsessive attention to safety, according to analysts and industry insiders.

Macondo

Deepwater Horizon /Macondo

Deepwater Horizon

ExxonMobil came in for its share of criticism for its decision to walk away from Blackbeard, and still does. In 2014 Forbes magazine said,

Furthermore, there’s the question of whether Exxon is even up for drilling a complex, ultradeep well in a frontier region. The company has begun to shy away from such risky stuff in recent years — preferring to leverage its gargantuan balance sheet and project management skills bring known hordes of oil and gas to market, rather than look for new ones.

After all, the last time Exxon attempted an ultradeep well, it chickened out . . .

However, for most people questions as to the wisdom of the decision to abandon the Blackbeard prospect were pretty much laid to rest on 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon rig at BP’s Macondo prospect blew up and sank taking seven lives with it and creating the nation’s worst-ever oil spill.

Exxon’s ‘lack of guts’ looks a lot more like justified conservatism and prudence, and a prescient awareness that safety, caution and catastrophic risk avoidance would be key themes as oil companies were forced to push the envelope in the search for new oil.

Paul Sankey, Deutsche Bank

A critical difference between ExxonMobil and BP was that the decision to walk away from the Blackbeard prospect was made by the highest levels of management. The decisions to do with the Macondo well, however, were made by much lower levels of management. Hence BP’s senior management was caught totally off balance when the blowout occurred.

Safety Culture

The Blackbeard incident shows how a company culture can change. In the case of the Exxon, the Valdez event led to management instituting a safety culture that is among the best in industry.

A second lesson to be learned from this event is that the decision as to what to do rose to the highest levels of the ExxonMobil company. This in contrast to the BP culture at Macondo where key decisions were made by the first line of management onshore and senior management knew nothing of what was going on until it was too late.

Conclusions

Kodak Moment
Up until this point in the series I have outlined the history of how we got to where we are regarding the Age of Limits and I have provided an overview of some of the predicaments that we face. This is the first post in which I look at ways in which engineers and managers in the process industries can help address these predicaments.

With regard to the energy companies and the Age of Limits we can draw the following conclusions:

  • The burning of oil and gas creates billions of tons of carbon dioxide ever year.
  • This carbon dioxide is causing an inexorable increase in atmospheric temperature which in turn is creating many, many problems.
  • No company is secure in the face of change and, as Kodak learned, change can take place with bewildering speed. It took less than forty years for a company that was utterly dominant in its market to go from inventing the digital camera to bankruptcy caused by that invention.
  • Oil companies will have to adapt (Stein’s Law, “What cannot go on will stop.”)
  • Those companies that fail to do so this will experience their ‘Kodak Moment’
  • But the companies that adapt quickly and effectively to the change may prosper and flourish.

This all sounds rather negative and threatening but the lesson to be taken from the Valdez/Blackbeard sequence of events is that large companies can change their culture. And it need not be just one company. In future posts we will discuss the topic of behavior-based safety and show how a whole industry changed its approach to managing safety, and how successful that effort was.

So Lesson #1 is,

Large companies can change their culture in response to radical external events.

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10. Denying Blackbeard – Part 1

Engineering in an Age of Limits
Post #10. Denying Blackbeard – Part 1

Rex Tillerson CEO of ExxonMobil

Rex Tillerson – CEO ExxonMobil

Engineers did not invent the steam engine — the steam engine invented them.
What will a post-oil society invent?

This is the tenth post in the series “Engineering in an Age of Limits”. We are facing limits in natural resources, particularly oil; our finances (money seems to be increasingly disconnected from actual goods and services); and the environment as we continue to dump waste products into the air, the sea and on to land.

We are also facing a transition as the Oil Age comes to an end. This is not the first time that society has faced such a shift. At the beginning of the 18th century the principal source of energy in northern Europe was wood. However the forests were mostly depleted so a new source of energy, coal, had to be developed and exploited. The extraction of coal from underground mines posed new technical challenges particularly with regard to removing the water that flooded those mines. So new technologies, particularly the steam engine, had to be developed. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. These technological developments led to many changes in society, including the creation of the profession of engineering. The transitions that we are currently experiencing as we look for alternatives to oil are likely to generate equally profound paradigm shifts.

In this blog we consider two questions:

  1. What new paradigms, new ways of looking at the world, will develop, analogous to the development of engineering in the early 18th century? and
  2. How can engineers and other technical professionals help navigate the troubled waters that we are entering?

These posts are published at our blog site. We also have a LinkedIn forum that you are welcome to join.

Previous Posts

The posts in this series so far are:

  1. Reverse Engineering
  2. Peak Forests
  3. The Mechanical World View
  4. Four Strands
  5. A Journey Part 1 — Twilight
  6. A Journey Part 2— Hubbert
  7. A Journey Part 3 — A Predicament
  8. A Journey Part 4 — Inconvenient Truths
  9. A Journey Part 5 — Bankable Projects
  10. Denying Blackbeard Part 1 (this one)

We have also, during the course of the last two years, published other posts to do with these topics. They are listed at our Welcome page.

Introduction

Engineers tend to view the world in terms of objective facts and calculations. They are comfortable with the view of the world outlined in The Mechanical World View. But, as discussed in Four Strands, the reality of the world that we live in is that most people react to discussions such as those posted here with emotion — usually a negative emotion such as denial, fear or anger.

Denial is not just an individual trait — it is a reaction sometimes exhibited by large organizations. To illustrate this point I would like to think through some of the comments made in a recent speech by Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, and hence one of the most powerful and influential individuals in the oil business. Before doing so I need to point out that, as a process safety and process risk professional (see my site at Sutton Technical Books), I have worked as a consultant and team member with many of the world’s largest oil companies, including ExxonMobil. These companies have a total commitment to safety, with results to match. And ExxonMobil is a safety leader. I will illustrate this leadership, specifically involving Mr. Tillerson, in the next post when we discuss the Blackbeard (non) incident.

Given this commitment to safety, and given that these companies have a very good grasp of the concept of risk, it is a puzzle that they seem to be in such denial regarding global warming and other elements of the Age of Limits. After all, could they come to grips with the changes that are occurring they may be able to identify business opportunities that will take them into the next decades.

The Speech

The following statement is extracted from Mr. Tillerson’s speech. It is quoted in the May 27th edition of Bloomberg Business — a respected business journal. Mr. Tillerson said,

Climate models that seek to predict the outcome of rising temperatures “just aren’t that good,” Tillerson said, reiterating a position he has publicly advocated at least since his promotion to CEO in 2006. The company is wary of making efforts to reduce emissions that may not work or that will be deemed unnecessary if the modeling is flawed, Tillerson said.

“Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity. Those solutions will present themselves as the realities become clear,” he said. “I know that is a very unsatisfying answer for a lot of people, but it’s an answer that a scientist and an engineer would give you.’’

Let us unpack the above statement to see how such a large and important company is managing denial.

Climate Models

Mr. Tillerson states that the models just “aren’t that good” — a phrase that really should be quantified. Yet the very selfsame article cites another Bloomberg piece that contains the following quotation,

There is widespread scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change . . . 

The reality is that the models are good — scientific uncertainty will always exist. But if there is one group of people that are used to making decisions on limited and conflicting data it is oil company executives. Whenever they decide to drill a well; there is always a chance that they will hit a dry hole. In fact it is likely that the climate models are a good deal more accurate than many of the models that oil industry uses in its business. Moreover, having worked in process risk management for companies such as these I know how well they handle risk and ucertainty in other business areas — these are the waters in which they swim.

Dealing with Adversity

Intriguingly, the comment that “solutions will present themselves” aligns with one of the major tenets of this blog. In the year 1712 Thomas Newcomen invented his steam engine because the people of that time, just like ourselves now, were faced with a dilemma. Their dilemma was to find a replacement for the forests that had declined; our dilemma is to find a new way of living given that we are bumping into resource, environmental and financial limits.

But the solutions did not really “present themselves” in the manner that Mr. Tillerson would seem to indicate. They were identified and developed by motivated individuals who realized that, in the words of the Monte Python, And Now for Something Completely Different. Newcomen and his successors recognized that brand new solutions were needed — the old models were not working. In modern parlance they introduced “disruptive technology”.  Mr. Tillerson’s comment could be interpreted to mean, “solutions with present themselves to ExxonMobil”. This is a risky assumption.

Science and Engineering

In his statement, Mr. Tillerson appears to conflate science with engineering. But they are not the same. Scientists are not expected to “deal with adversity”, or with anything else for that matter. Their responsibility in this context is to develop models to do with resource depletion and climate change that accurately reflect the observed data and then to make sensible and defensible predictions. Engineers, on the other hand, are expected to take those models and develop technology that can address the problem at hand.

In fact the development of new technology is really a three-step process. The first step, as discussed in Peak Forests, is to develop an intellectual framework (in their day this was done by men such as Francis Bacon, René Descartes and Isaac Newton who created the ‘Mechanical World View’). The next step is to develop technology — in their case the steam engine. The third and final step is the development of explanatory science (such as a theory which explained why Newcomen’s engine could never lift water more than 32 feet).

We, in our day, seem to be still at the first step. Many writers, most of them on the Internet, are critiquing the way we run things now to the point where is all becomes rather repetitive and tedious. I am more interested in trying to figure out what I will call an Entropic World View that replaces the Mechanical World View might look like.

A Kodak Moment

Kodak-1

History books are littered with stories of companies that failed to adjust to new circumstances and eventually went out of business. Kodak is a well-known example — its failure to react quickly and thoroughly to digital technology led to its rather sudden demise.

In its early days the company the company had been innovative and, maybe more important, willing to sacrifice a currently profitable product line for a new technology. For example,

  • In 1900 they introduced the Box Brownie camera — “You push the button, we do the rest”.
  • Twice George Eastman bet the company on change — once when he moved out of plate photography to rolls of film, and later when he moved to color, even though the initial quality was not that great.
  • In 1975 a company employee invented the first digital camera. That’s when things started to go wrong. Rather than bet the company once again, management played a defensive strategy and eventually lost the game, going out of business in 2012.

Various business journals have analyzed the reasons for Kodak’s failure to adapt. They tend to boil down to just a few precepts.

  • Top management never fully understood how the world around them was changing.
  • Even when they did respond they did so half-heartedly, always trying to enhance the existing film business with digital rather than starting a brand new business.
  • They were not willing to dump the ecosystem of Kodak dealers that was central to their old business model.
  • Above all, management was never willing to gamble the company on new technology in the way that George Eastman had done.

It is useful to use the Kodak story as an analogy for what the oil companies are facing now, and there certainly are some parallels. There is, however, one big difference. Kodak was faced with a clear and present disruptive technology: digital photography. The oil companies are faced with a situation where there is no single technology to replace what they are doing now. Instead, they are looking at a situation where the old business model is starting to crack but there is no new technology waiting in the wings.

Blackbeard

Blackbeard

Blackbeard

My comments so far could be construed, with some justification, as being critical of ExxonMobil’s response to climate change — and by implication, most of the other large oil companies. There is nothing in Rex Tillerson’s speech to show that he is looking to transform ExxonMobil in the manner that George Eastman did on at least two occasions with Kodak. However, as already noted, oil company culture is probably more risk-oriented than that of other industries. Also, over the last twenty years or so, their culture has developed a profound understanding of safety management — and the results show it. This indicates to me that these companies have demonstrated a willingness not only to change culture, but to do so effectively. They have also placed the safety ethic above the profit ethic. All of which augurs some hope for the future.

More on this in the next post when we discuss the Blackbeard (non) incident.

The One-Legged Stool

One-Legged-Stool-2

We are currently writing a series of posts to do with systems analysis and how process safety expertise can help contribute to an understanding of such systems. The first two posts in this series are:

  • APEC Blue which discussed the ignored, yet very real, costs of externalities; and
  • The Cloud which pointed out that externalities go beyond simple environmental issues, and that, sooner or later, we — all of us — will have to pay for them.

The background to this series is that we have entered an Age of Limits (economic, energy and environmental). Like it or not our world is going to get much simpler. It behooves those of us who are aware of this wrenching change to get out ahead of the curve. (An excellent introduction to these three topics is provided by Chris Martenson in his ‘Crash Course’. It consists of 26 presentations, each of which lasts for ten minutes. Time spent listening and watching these presentations is time very well spent.) And, I would like to think that that those trained in process safety management already have a good grasp of systems thinking.

In the previous paragraph I used the phrase ‘Like it or not’. Our world is going to get simpler. We can deny the changes that are taking place; we can believe that “they” (whoever “they” are) will come up with something; or we can just hope for the best. None of these reactions make any difference: “Nature bats last”. Moreover, simplification is not going to be pretty — a topic we will discuss in future posts. But it would be irresponsible to deny the existence of the predicament in which we find ourselves. We need to take action — time is not on our side.

Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush

John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer

In previous posts I have cited the works of John Michael Greer. Since the year 2006 he has been writing a remarkable and very successful weekly blog entitled The Archdruid Report in which he clearly spells out the dilemmas that we face. In one of his posts he reports that, when speaking at one conference, he spontaneously came up with the phrase, “Collapse Now and Beat the Rush”. It is useful to provide the context in which he made the remark.

One of my presentations to that conference was a talk entitled “How Civilizations Fall;” longtime readers of this blog will know from the title that what I was talking about that afternoon was the theory of catabolic collapse, which outlines the way that human societies on the way down cannibalize their own infrastructure, maintaining themselves for the present by denying themselves a future.  I finished talking about catabolic collapse and started fielding questions, of which there were plenty, and somewhere in the conversation that followed one of the other participants made a comment. I don’t even remember the exact words, but it was something like, “So what you’re saying is that what we need to do, individually, is to go through collapse right away.”

“Exactly,” I said. “Collapse now, and avoid the rush.”

Outside of that conversation, I doubt I would have thought of the phrase at all. By the end of the conference, though, it was on the lips of a good many of the attendees, and for good reason: I can’t think of a better way to sum up the work ahead of us right now, as industrial society lurches down the far side of its trajectory through time.

In other words, society as we know it — including the energy and process industries — is going to collapse (or at least change radically, whether we like it or not) and it us up to use to take charge of our destinies.

Greer’s theory to do with ‘catabolic collapse’ is fascinating and deserves a thorough treatment in future posts in this blog series. But Greer and most of his readers are not, like most of the readers here, engineers or process safety specialists. His audience tends to focus on how individuals can respond to the dilemmas that we face or how political and social systems need to change. The challenge that faces those of us who work in industry  is how to simplify industrial processes while maintaining our standards of safety and environmental responsibility.

Which brings us to Trevor Kletz and his one-legged stool.

The One-Legged Stool

I haveKletz-Trevor-1 had occasion on a number of times to refer to Trevor Kletz and his ability to tell stories (see my post That would be telling.) One of his better known stories was to do with the one-legged stool.

Early in the 20th century a factory in England manufactured the dangerous explosive nitro-glycerine. The worker in charge of this process (the rather stout gentleman shown in the picture at the head of this post) was allowed to sit down but only on a one-legged stool. Hence if he dozed off he would fall and wake up. (Further information to do with this primitive, yet effective safety technique is provided at the Wat Tyler Country Park site.) The following is a quotation from that site.

Highly unstable nitro-glycerine was the main ingredient of explosives made at the Pitsea factory. Making nitro-glycerine was very dangerous. Concentrated acids were mixed with glycerine in huge vats. If too much glycerine was added too quickly to the mixture, it would become unstable, and a large valve would have to be opened to quickly dump the whole batch into a large vat of water. Failure to do this quickly could have led to a catastrophic explosion.

Mostly, though it was very dull. The operator would sit at the mixing machine for long hours just looking at the dials to make sure the machine was working OK, and there was a good chance they could fall asleep on the job. A one-legged stool made sure they had to perch to stay awake. At Pitsea it seems this was very effective, because in all the years the factory operated they never once had to dump the Nitro-Glycerine mixture.

Strapping-Gauge-1It might be thought that the time and place of this example is so distant as to be not pertinent to modern industry. But I recall, early in my career, working at chemical plants in south-east Texas and in Europe where the clients made large quantities of ethylene oxide (EO) — a chemical that is both toxic and highly flammable. EO was stored in a large intermediate tanks (I would say at least 15 meters tall) that had absolutely no instrumentation at all — none, zippo. The only way of measuring the level was with a manual strapping gauge. To modern eyes this situation sounds extraordinarily hazardous, yet it worked — in many years of operation neither facility had a spill or any other type of incident to do with intermediate tanks.

But the modern safety engineer could not live with such a situation, not least because it probably contravenes some industry standard or regulation. So he or she would carry out lengthy and expensive “studies” and determine that “something must be done” — even though there really isn’t a problem to be solved. The final recommendation will be that a sophisticated level control system be installed, backed up with a high-integrity Safety Instrumentation System.

This new system may or may not make the operation of the tank more safe but it will most certainly increase capital and maintenance costs by orders of magnitude. And, more important, a complex system such as this is vulnerable to the Law of Unintended Consequences. If something can break it will. But with the one-legged stool, all that can break is the leg of the stool itself, and that can be fixed in no time flat.

The increased complexity of the solution to the “Nitro-Glycerine (non-) problem” shows up in the elements of process safety.

  • Process Safety Information.
    Stool: Very little information needed and none of it needs to be written down; stools have been in used for millennia; we know how they work and what they do.
    Instrumentation: Extensive; subject to error; out of date almost immediately; expensive to record and keep up to date.
  • Operating Procedures
    Stool
    : Short — keep an eye on the level and temperature and level in the vessel; turn one valve if things go awry.
    Instrumentation: Extensive; complex; expensive.
  • Maintenance
    Stool
    : Negligible – the workshop can fix any problems in minutes.
    Instrumentation: Complex, subject to error and vulnerable to lack of skilled personnel; expensive.
  • Prestartup Review
    Stool: Sit on it, the test is complete in seconds.
    Instrumentation: Lengthy, needs checklists; leads to acrimonious meetings; expensive,

Of course, the above is written somewhat tongue-in-cheek. But the attractiveness of simple solutions cannot be denied yet it invariably avoided.

Back to Trevor — he and his colleagues recognized the value and elegance of simplicity. They made it the fifth leg of the stool of Inherent Safety.

  1. Eliminate
  2. Minimize
  3. Substitute
  4. Moderate
  5. Simplify

But there is a profound difference between what Trevor propounded and what we are discussing in this blog series.

In Trevor’s day simplification was a choice. In the Age of Limits simplification is going to happen — like it or not. The challenge that we are faced with is not “How do we make our processes simpler?” but “Given that our processes are going to become simpler how do we manage this transition and still maintain our standards of safety and environmental performance?”

The Newness of Safety

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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”.

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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-1

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