Gaining wisdom

I have written on a few occasions in the past about how engineering is not absolute and requires a sensible attitude to rules, the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty and some degree of professional wisdom.  That was all just my opinion but I’ve been gratified that a report from the Energy Pipelines Cooperative Research Centre puts some substance behind those ideas.

Sarah Maslen of the ANU sociology department interviewed 34 engineers across the Australian pipeline industry comprising mostly  younger people plus some representatives of their managers and mentors.  The objectives were to understand how young engineers understand safety and their role in it, how they learn about safety and relevant expertise, and how organisations and the industry generally influence development of safe engineering.  The study was motivated by the imminent generational change as many older engineers approach retirement (including me) leaving a bit of a generation gap with only a relatively small proportion of experienced mid-career people.

The report is some 40 pages long and difficult to summarise in a short blog post but here are some of the key themes:

  • Young engineers in design roles understand that safety includes prevention of major accidents, but tend to take the view that safety is achieved by compliance with standards.  As experience grows they appreciate that safety is broader than mere compliance.
  • Young engineers in construction and operations roles tended to view safety more in terms of worker safety rather than prevention of major accidents, reflecting the issues they face on a day to day basis.  Nevertheless people in these roles do also have an important role in prevention of major accidents through establishing and maintaining pipeline integrity.
  • Most engineers gained a mature appreciation of safety issues through experience and particularly through mentoring, rather than through training courses, hence emphasising the central role of mentoring in professional development.  An interesting suggestion is comparison with the training process for medical doctors who need to learn a vast amount of factual knowledge through coursework but also need the experience that can be gained only from structured mentoring.  (Watching my son go through this process is illuminating.)
  • Young engineers who felt that they were developing the most professionally were working in companies that dedicated significant time and money to informally mentoring their staff, and facilitating supported on-the-job training (ie a buddy system).  Related to this is the structure of the organisation, where a discipline-based structure was more effective at promoting learning than a function-based structure that may separate young engineers from older colleagues who may be the best mentors.
  • The role of AS 2885 in promoting safety is well recognised, but young engineers soon learn that it is not a complete standalone design guide and can only be used by by (or with the guidance of) experienced engineers.

The report concludes with a series of questions that companies and engineers can ask themselves to assess how well they are developing the right approach to safety among younger staff:

  • Is safety understood to include the prevention of major accidents?
  • How are young engineers being supported in their daily activities? Are opportunities for experience made available? Are they contributing to work they are responsible for? Have they visited site? On site, do they have the support of a more experienced engineer? Are the potentially serious consequences of getting things wrong well understood by younger engineers and specifically linked to their day-to-day responsibilities?
  • Are there senior engineers with the time available for young engineers to ask questions? Are these engineers approachable? Are they in the same discipline? Do young engineers also have access to expertise in other disciplines as needed?
  • Are incidents responded to in an open way? Have staff been pressured to make decisions due to schedule and cost considerations? Do staff feel confident to make decisions for safety reasons?

There are also recommendations for the whole industry:

  • Is information about incidents openly disseminated at an industry level?
  • Are there steps that industry can take to encourage informal mentoring?
  • Are there steps that industry can take to facilitate experience across companies?

The report is worthwhile reading for all managers of young engineers, and young engineers themselves.  It is available to all members of the APIA Research and Standards Committee.

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