Item 1: I guess any pipeline engineer who has been paying attention is aware of the recent San Bruno disaster in California, which killed 8 people. Among other things it lead to a flurry of reports in local media in other US communities near pipelines. Journalists and local people wondered whether a similar incident could occur in their area, and pipeline operators responded with assurances to the community that they were doing all the right things and that the likelihood of a repeat was too small to worry about.
Item 2: There is a concept of High Reliability Organisations (HROs), which undertake obviously hazardous activities yet suffer few failures. Airlines (mostly) are a classic example. I can’t readily lay hands on a really simple description of HROs – this document is a bit lengthy, but a quick scan of the first page or so then the major sub-headings should give your the flavour of what is involved. My own simplistic description is that people in HROs never stop worrying about what could go wrong and never stop looking for ways to make things safer, as opposed to complacently thinking they have it all under control.
Drawing these concepts together, it worries me that the US pipeline operators are telling their communities that they have their pipelines completely under control and there is no need to worry about further failures. On the one hand, perhaps that is a reasonable PR message and doesn’t really reflect the internal thinking of the pipeline companies. On the other hand, what if it’s not just spin but is a true statement of what the pipeline managements believe? In that case there would be every cause for worry.
In my dealings with Australian pipeline companies I certainly get the impression that they take their safety obligations seriously. But I don’t really know whether they worry about it all the time, or just when I’m there to help with a safety management study.
What do you think?