Minding the Machines - Preventing Technological Disasters
By: William M. Evan and Mark Manion
Published by: Prentice Hall
Publication Date: September 2002
PART 1 - INTRODUCTION
Chapter 1 - Technological Disasters: An Overview
Chapter 2 - Natural and Human-Made Disasters
PART 2 - THE PREVALENCE OF NATURAL DISASTERS
Chapter 3 - The Y2K Debacle
Chapter 4 - Theories of Technological Disasters
Chapter 5 - The Root Causes of Technological Disasters
PART 3 - TECHNOLOGICAL DISASTERS SINCE THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
Chapter 6 - Three Industrial Revolutions and Beyond
Chapter 7 - A Matrix of Technological Disasters
PART 4 - ANALYSIS OF CASE STUDIES OF TECHNOLOGICAL DISASTERS
Chapter 8 - Twelve Exemplary Case Studies of Technological Disasters
Chapter 9 - Lessons Learned from the Case Studies of Technological Disasters
PART 5 - STRATEGIC RESPONSES TO TECHNOLOGICAL DISASTERS
Chapter 10 - The Responsibilities of Engineers and Scientists
Chapter 11 - The Role of Corporations in the Management of Technological Disasters
Chapter 12 - The Role of the Legal System in Technological Policy Decisions
Chapter 13 - Assessing the Risks of Technology
Chapter 14 - Technology Decisions and the Democratic Process
For Engineers wishing to consider concepts of technological risk at a higher level, this book is excellent reading.
The fundamental underlying proposition of this book is that Technology has advanced to the point where the impact of catastrophic failures of this technology are felt far and wide, and that the traditional, technocratic methods of assessing and managing these risks are no longer appropriate. The book recognises the value of technical assessment of technological risks, but also outlines a number of significant failings in the methodologies typically used (such as Probabalistic Risk Assessment (PRA), Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) and Risk-Cost-Benefit Analysis (RCBA)). In particular, it points out failings in human beings capability to effectively assess the risks associated with high-consequence, low probability events.
But this is by no means a technology-bashing book. It recognises the benefits that advancing technology has brought to humanity, and by no means suggests that future advances in technology should be curtailed. Rather, it suggests that a more broad-ranging debate, and democratic involvement in decisions relating to technological risks should be pursued.
The authors, Evan and Manion, are both academics from the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, respectively, and accordingly, the book is excellently researched, with ample references for the points made.
The book contains detailed assessments of many technological accidents that have occurred over the last century and a half, including such incidents as Chernobyl, the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, the Ford Pinto fuel tank debacle, the Bhopal chemical release in India, and many many more. The authors attempt to classify these incidents as having a primary cause belonging in one of four categories - Technical Design related, Human Factors related, Organizational Systems related, and Socio-cultural related. This classification, for me, was somewhat simplistic, but nevertheless highlghted the fact that significant disasters are often caused by far more than just the limitations of our knowledge of the technology involved - and therefore require a far more holistic approach to the management of these risks.
Of particular interest to most engineers will be the chapter which assesses the limitations of Probabalistic Risk Assessment (PRA), Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) and Risk-Cost-Benefit Analysis (RCBA) in trying to manage technological risk. These limitations primarily result from the fact that these processes are driven by humans, and therefore are all subject to the limitations of our own capability to properly assess high consequence, low probability events. Among these limitations, Evan and Manion include:
Problems in identifying a comprehensive list of all potential risk factors
Problems with uncertainties in the modelling of systems
Problems associated with determining cause-effect relationships
Uncertainties due to human factors, and
Problems of complexity and coupling
Nevertheless, Evan and Manion maintain that these types of analyses are a useful input into the debate on future technologies - so long as we are aware of their weaknesses.
In summary, this book is a well-researched, well-reasoned book, which, for many engineers, may help to expand their horizons, and question the legitimacy of a purely technocentric approach to the assessment of technological risks.
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