San Bruno and High Reliability Organisations

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?

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3 Responses to San Bruno and High Reliability Organisations

  1. Susan Jaques says:

    What the rumours on what caused San Bruno? Not the media spin/hype, but heard within the corridors of pipeline engineering. Do Americans manage an Integrity register like we do in Australia? For a high-profile item like San Bruno, will the cause be clearly communicated to the public, or mostly kept to pipeline circles, or kept quiet overall?

    • petertuft says:

      Hard to answer any of that with certainty. I wasn’t aware of it being discussed in the corridors of pipeline engineering at IPC – I got a sense that people were being discreet about speculating. The cause is unknown but speculated by some to be corrosion – seems fairly clear that it wasn’t external interference. The very straight fracture hints at a possible weld defect, but that’s also very speculative. There have been media reports that there was a pressure “surge” not long before the failure – some sort of control upset at a nearby station that resulted in a pressure slightly higher than normal. I won’t be surprised if it turns out to be a combination of factors.

      Not sure what you mean by an “integrity register”.

      The San Bruno incident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (who also investigate plane crashes, railway accidents, etc), and presumably the report will be made public, but it might be a year or so before it’s completed.

  2. Chris Hughes says:

    Peter, I think that the pipeline professionals in Australia do take safety very seriously: but unfortunately a number of pipelines are owned by organisations where the pipeline is just an incidental part of their operation and I’m not sure that all these organisations realise just what is needed to maintain safety to the necessary level. hopefully most of these pipelines are operated and maintained by professionals on behalf of the owners but I know of cases where maintenance funds have to be squeezed out of the owners who begrudge the expenditure on something which doesn’t directly contribute to their bottom line.

    Still, we haven’t had any serious consequences yet, and I sincerely trust that we won’t in the future.

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