This article was printed in CONTROL's August 2009 edition.
The almost daily drumbeat of safety and security failures we've been seeing tells me two things. The first is that people are becoming more sensitive to the issue. It is doubtful that there are that many more incidents occurring—just more publicity for them. The second thing is that we still have not managed to create whatever culture we need to eliminate the majority of the incidents.
Computer-assisted devices have been the culprits in some cases. The Washington Metro train accident may turn out to have been a failure of the computer or the SCADA system controlling the trains. According to the Washington Post, tests have shown that the SCADA system designed to sense the position of trains and avoid crashes is not working properly. The Air France Airbus that crashed in June is a fly-by-wire aircraft, and this is not the first serious incident with computer-assisted control systems. The betting right now is on the icing of the pitot tube as the proximate cause of the computer system reporting false values to the pilot until it was too late to recover. The Bellingham, Wash., pipeline disaster was shown by the NTSB report to have been a failure of the computer-controlled SCADA system. In all three events, deaths resulted.
[pullquote]We continue to see, in industrial process plants a consistent inability to apply the appropriate safety consciousness to plant operation.
The recently released report by the U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on the Buncefield disaster in 2005 notes that the explosion appears to have been consistent with a fuel-air explosion caused by an ignition in the emergency power house, but fueled by a cloud of hydrocarbons in the area. Yet the British media noted two days before the report was issued that the companies involved still have not implemented the corrective measures that might have eliminated or mitigated the accident.
Safety, security, operational awareness and training are not individual efforts. They must be designed in, and they must reinforce each other. And above all, they must be enforced and made a part of the corporate culture at each plant and at the very top of the corporate level, or they will be ignored in the drive to more profit.
Can we, as automation professionals, do anything to keep companies from ignoring safety and security, operator training and awareness?
That's the bad news. We may have to use the continuing progression of accidents to force government regulation to impose this consciousness from above. That's what happened with environmental accidents. Nobody in his or her right mind would consider building or operating a manufacturing facility in the process industries that didn't have environmental controls designed as an integral part of the plant's operations. Yet not so long ago, companies regularly discharged wastes and ignored the burgeoning environmental disasters this caused. Of course, in the safety and security arena, those accidents are almost always accompanied by deaths. And those deaths are the operators and maintenance people—the very people who should be protected from those accidents.
And we will still have "accidents" that look a lot like "on purposes," such the Bayer CropScience incident, where damage, death and destruction were covered up on purpose to avoid the legitimate aftereffects of poor judgment and improper operations.
We're going to have to wait for the economic calculus to widen once again, as it did for environmental pollution, and is widening now for sustainable manufacturing and "green" energy. We need to keep pushing for management to get it, though, or it's going to be a long, frustrating wait.