Safety Responses

Sept. 15, 2009
What Went Wrong at Chernobyl and How Safe is Safe?
This article was printed in CONTROL's September 2009 edition.

What Went Wrong at Chernobyl?

I read the article "Good Process Control = No Chernobyl" (July '09) with great interest and can't agree with you more. I was especially struck by the last three points which, in my opinion, apply to all process systems. Your third point "...designing a control system requires the in-depth understanding of the process by experienced process control engineers," especially struck a nerve.

Engineering is the only profession I know of that, as soon as an engineer graduates, the first thing he is told by his superiors is to get out of engineering and into management as soon as possible. If an engineer is still practicing engineering 10 years after he graduated, he is considered a failure.

To make matters worse, the process engineer, who may not have in-depth understanding of control systems, dictates what controls go into the process. To exacerbate the problem, our profession has been fragmented into specialties, such as DCS, PLC, safety systems, etc., which may or may not communicate with each other. Finally, a systems integrator who understands how to get all the different microprocessor-based systems communicating, but with little or no understanding of the overall process or process control, will inevitably be brought into a project.

In addition, since the mid 1980s, accounting and purchasing departments have taken on prominent positions [in the decision-making process] and, in some cases, can override engineering decisions.

Since this and other questionable practices have become the current corporate culture, there is little instrument and process control departments can do to improve the situation.

Stephen Curyk, PE
[email protected]

Béla Lipták responds:
This trend is sad and dangerous. It is due to our short-range, profit-oriented corporate culture, and it's going to get us into trouble. It shows everywhere—when a product is sold during business lunches with people who don't have knowledge, only influence (and appetite); when the future of professional publications depends on advertisements; when the manufacturers' goal is creating captive markets; and when the technology world does not see that the process control profession could integrate, optimize and make processes safe if it were allowed to do so.

But do not worry; this will change. I see it already happening. I see it on the faces in Asia. I see it during my lecture tour in India, where they understand what optimization is and where their national resources are not spent on energy wars, but on education. It is time that we Americans wake up.

Safety Culture

Re "How Safe is Safe?  How Secure is Secure?" (April '09)

On machine safety, I can't agree that doing "just enough" is a good idea.  Compliance standards are somewhat stale compared to real life, and it's worth making common-sense safety decisions for things the standards may not yet cover.

Simply following compliance can result in adding, not reducing, hazard, and it is wise to think in a broader sense. This has to do with situations where a "safety" device ends up being used as an operator "control" device, for example, sticking an arm in front of a closing elevator door instead of pushing the "Door Open" button. Such practices are really bad habits on a lot of equipment, and they suggest that different or additional safety is needed.

I especially disagree that lawyers are of a mind to do just the minimum. It's been my experience that lawyers aren't very sensitive to cost issues if liability is reduced. 

Charles E. Kinzer
[email protected]