Perfectly safe …

Yesterday I went to the funeral of a friend from university days.  That’s not particularly relevant to pipeline engineering, except that he was the source of the punchline I use almost every time I talk to a group or a seminar about pipeline safety management.

As a first year student I joined the university bushwalking and mountaineering club and my mate was one of the old experienced guys (aged about 22) who taught me to abseil.  As he taught us to check and double-check everything that connected us to the rope and the rope to the belay point he said “It’s perfectly safe as long as  you never forget that it’s extremely dangerous”.

That bon mot lodged firmly in my brain, partly because of its delicious paradox and partly because it was so apt.  He claimed that it originated in naval gunnery but I have not been able to confirm that and it doesn’t matter.  (Google can’t find it anywhere except in something I produced myself, so maybe my mate himself was the originator.)  It applies to many things in our modern technological society where high-energy activities and equipment have the potential to go wrong and dissipate their huge energy in a very damaging way.  That particularly includes high pressure hydrocarbon pipelines.

To my mind the safety management study is the formal process we use to make sure that we never forget but we should not restrict consideration of safety to the SMS.  That would be like doing just one quick check of your abseiling gear and rigging before heading over the edge.  To keep pipelines perfectly safe we need to remember at all times that they are extremely dangerous.

The other really interesting aspect of the epigram is that its essence is about the human causes of failure.   Things don’t cease to be safe because of truly random events like the nuclear decay that may or may not have killed Schrodinger’s cat.  In our non-quantum world technological disasters occur because (somewhere, sometime) somebody forgot that they were dealing with something extremely dangerous.  The human and organisational aspects of safety are fundamental.

Vale Ross Vining

This entry was posted in Eng'g philosophy, Operations, Pipeline design, Risk assessment. Bookmark the permalink.

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