Wisdom and professionalism

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald has an interesting opinion piece by Steven Schwarz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University.  His topic is wisdom, and his arguments resonate with me because they align with thoughts I expressed earlier in this blog.

Schwartz gives a few examples of situations where someone has stuck rigidly to rules in the face of all common sense.  Some are comic, but the death of teenager David Iredale during a summer bushwalk in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney was tragic.  He was short of water and somehow became separated from his two companions.  Dehydrating and intermittently fainting, he used his mobile to repeatedly call 000 and ask for an ambulance.  However the ambulance call centre staff seemed unable to get past their rule that required locations to be specified by a street address, ignoring the repeatedly-stated fact that the kid was in the bush many miles from any road.

David Iredale may have died regardless of how his distress calls were handled, but that didn’t save the ambulance service from severe criticism by the coroner.  The coroner’s report contains no less than five pages of recommended improvements to the the way calls for ambulance assistance are handled.  Which brings me to my point:  you are mistaken if you think that following the rules when they are clearly inappropriate will protect you from retribution if things go wrong.

Schwartz calls it “wisdom” to be able to distinguish mindless obedience from sensible breach of rules.  I think that’s a rather narrow definition of wisdom, but his point is well made, as far as it goes.  His focus is on individual wisdom.  But what if the rules are imposed by a system that imposes serious sanctions for breach?  The wise employee who can see the folly of the rules but is not permitted to apply common sense may just end up in a state of unresolvable internal conflict.

That happened to the captain of the ship which dragged its anchor across Esso’s ethane line in Port Phillip Bay in 2008, rupturing the pipe.  One version of the story is told here.  Captain Xu Pingfeng was well aware that his ship had potential to damage the pipeline as its anchor dragged in strong winds.  However the Port of Melbourne refused him permission to raise the anchor and manoeuvre the ship to safety because their rules required a pilot to be on board, and the pilot had departed from the ship some time before.

Captain Xu was in a no-win situation – follow the rules and rupture the pipe, or break the rules and risk disciplinary action.  He followed the rules, and the pipeline failed.  But it was indeed a no-win situation for him because he was censured by a court for not breaking the rules in order to maintain safety – a thoroughly invidious position that caused the captain considerable distress at the time and for long afterwards.

So that’s two anecdotes about situations where rigid adherence to rules had really bad outcomes.  I hope no pipeline engineer ever finds themselves in anything remotely like that position.  It shouldn’t be necessary because as I have noted previously, AS 2885 permits exemption from its own rules (subject of course to careful justification and approval and not done lightly).

But is that wisdom?  In this context I think it’s just professionalism.

This entry was posted in Eng'g philosophy, Standards. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Wisdom and professionalism

  1. Adrian Amey says:

    Hi Phil
    An interesting an relevant issue. For me the real question is –
    Who determines what “rules” are “clearly inappropriate” and on what basis can they do it?
    As you point out AS2885 permits exemptions to the “rules” contained in the Standard but which ones. Potentialy all of them?
    So is it permitted for a licensee to deviate from any aspect of AS2885 if they want to?
    Or are there some rules which represent minimum best practice which must be followed?

    Adrian Amey

    • petertuft says:


      In principle yes, potentially all the rules may be open to exemptions, but in practice there would be many rules for which exemption is almost inconceivable. For example, if someone decided they wanted a 0.9 design factor pipeline … .

      There has to be a strong justification, including that any departures from the standard “give equivalent or better results”. Part of the control over this is in the definition of “Approved and approval” in Clause 1.5.2: “Approved by the Licensee, and includes obtaining the approval of the relevant regulatory authority where this is legally required. Approval requires a conscious act and is given in writing.” As you are aware, the code committee is right now in the process of giving a whole lot more teeth to the approval requirements.

      • Adrian Amey says:

        I think your comment on the design factor is important. In fact what your saying is that if the regulator has not prescribed certain criteria such as the need to have them approve the design factor, and the licensee specifically (consciously) approves a 0.99 design factor in writing then that is acceptable.
        Surely their must be some limits defined by industry experience and the laws of nature. I tend to call these limits minimum best practice and consider they establsih the acceptable boundaires that the industry can work within safely.
        What you appear to be saying is that in the absence of prescritive regulatory requirements, the only boundaires are those the pipeline licensee is prepared to sign off on.

    • petertuft says:


      I don’t think it’s quite right to say that “absence of prescritive regulatory requirements, the only boundaries are those the pipeline licensee is prepared to sign off on”. My main point of disagreement with that is the “prescriptive” bit, because I think regulation can be done in other ways, or at least without a “one size fits all” prescription. I know I’m treading on your turf here and you’ve probably thought about this a lot more than I have. I certainly believe that the technical regulators have a very important role in making sure that departures from the standard don’t get out of hand. But overly prescriptive regulation runs the risk of stifling innovation.

      The high design factor example isn’t very helpful because it’s so obviously unrealistic; I can’t imagine any pipeline proponent being prepared to go through the angst of persuading a regulator that he absolutely must have a design factor greater than 0.8, giving the pain involved in getting the increase from 0.72 to 0.8 into AS 2885. Unfortunately right now it’s getting late and I’m having trouble thinking of a more realistic example of a potentially legitimate departure from the standard.

      One slightly half-baked example is limit state design – half-baked because the standard already contemplates that as a possibility but doesn’t set any rules, it just says that you need to pick a set of rules from somewhere else and approve them (see Clause 5.7.9(a) ). There can be entirely legitimate reasons for doing that, but writing prescriptive rules in advance could involve huge effort for the code committee and may or may not be of value to the industry in the short term. I think it’s a good approach to be non-prescriptive and say “let’s work out what seems appropriate at the time, and make sure it is thoroughly documented and approved”.

      • Adrian Amey says:

        I agree that no pipeline proponent will go through the regulator approval process if they know they are not likely to succeed. And I suggest the only reason they would not suceed is if teh regulator thought the proposal was unsafe. That is not the issue.

        This issue is under the current definition of “approval” the Licensee only needs to get regulator approval if that has been prescribed before hand. If the regulator has not put in place a reguirment that thier approval is required the Licensee does not need to seek it and can proceed on their own “approavl”.

        While ethical engineers and licensee can be expected to do the right thing, Regulators need to consider the unethical people out there as well.

        In NSW we use AS2885 to set the manadatory minimum best practice for pipelines. We donot seek to approve designs or operating procedure.

        If you are telling me that every “rule” can be varied from if “approved” it appears we may need to start doing that to protect the community from the unethical practioniners / licensees.

      • petertuft says:

        This is becoming a major discussion, and unfortunately I don’t have time just now to respond in detail. In any case, I think it would make an interesting new topic in its own right. Watch this space! (but with a little patience).

  2. Markus Seitz says:


    Very good indeed. Thank goodness we have AS2885. And thank goodness pipeline maintenance is a slow business! AS2885 allows non-compliant situations to be risk-assessed. This usually involves a group of experienced people who can make a decision together based on a given framework. In more pressing situations, I agree, you may have to forego the risk assessment and at least get the team to sign up for the decision.

    The captain of the ship is in a difficult position, as he is ultimately accountable. As engineers we (usually?) have the luxury of being part of a team. The book “Lessons from Longford” by Andrew Hopkins is a great read on this topic.

  3. petertuft says:

    A clarification: I don’t mean to sound as if I’m encouraging departures from AS 2885 on a whim. What I do want to encourage is a thoughtful approach rather than application of AS 2885 as a cookbook. I quite often see, and would like to discourage, obsession with minutiae because someone thinks the standard requires it, especially if that obsession results in neglect of the big picture view of things.

    By way of example, I’m currently looking at updating a safety management study for a desert pipeline. The previous study had about 5000 threat locations, the majority of which were bends, fences and property boundaries. Entering that data in the first place was a huge effort that added zero value to the process. On the other hand I can’t find any mention of some significant geohazards that I know exist and which are potentially real threats to pipeline integrity. Other safety management studies don’t look much further than the list of predefined threats in Appendix C of AS 2885 Part 1, regardless of whether those threats are in fact appropriate to the pipeline in question.

    When I talk about departures from the standard the great majority of cases where it might be appropriate are at this level of fine detail. Opportunities for radically different design principles will be vary rare indeed.

  4. Chris Hughes says:

    Whilst AS2885 allows just about anything as long as it is “approved”, my experience has been that once you point out to the licensee (who is usually not an engineer) the responsibility they have to accept by approving design items they will rarely if ever approve anything that is not specifically covered by the Standard.

    An example of this is Tier 2 and 3 welding sentencing in AS2885.2. Theoretically the use of Tier 2 or 3 sentencing allows larger defects in the weld and consequently the saving of money from less controlled welding, but personally I have never been involved in a project where the contractor used anything other than Tier 1 simply because no-one was prepared to accept responsibility for carrying out the necessary Engineering Assessment” for the higher tiers.

  5. Pingback: Approval | Pipelines OZ

  6. Pingback: Gaining wisdom | Pipelines OZ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s