18 June 2010

There is no such thing as prefect safety

dispatches from TJICistan | TJIC | safety vs. dollars
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/arch…

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which established the $75 million liability cap after the Exxon Valdez accident, also said that spills due to gross negligence or similar safety violations are subject to unlimited liability. The evidence is building that BP won’t be able to hide from the gross negligence charge even if they try:
“Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense,” Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Bart Stupak of Michigan said in a letter to BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward. “If this is what happened, BP’s carelessness and complacency have inflicted a heavy toll on the Gulf, its inhabitants, and the workers on the rig.”
This is supposed to be a smoking gun quote?

Look, we all trade off safety in order to save time and expense.

Do you put on your seat belt when moving your car from one point in the driveway to another?

Do you buy the car that costs twice as much, because it’s got a 1% increase in crash survivability?

Did you pay $40k to get industrial fire sprinklers installed in your house?

Do you have a home defibrillation machine?

There is nothing wrong, in the abstract, with trading off safety in order to save time and expense.

The question is whether BP did this to a level that constitutes “gross negligence”.
What he said.

I took a risk management course as an undergrad engineer.  The first lesson, and indeed the single most important one, is that there is no such thing as "safe."

Stories get written up in the media as if there is some cut off between "safe" and "unsafe."  There isn't.  It's not Boolean.  There are degrees of safety, against which you must trade off cost, efficiency, longevity, ease of manufacture, ease of maintenance, weight, and a host of other concerns, even aesthetics.  Designers and engineers weigh these considerations in absolutely everything you encounter in your life.

Just to say that BP engineers made a decision on the risk / cost spectrum is irrelevant.  Anyone who has the slightest clue about how things are designed and built already knew that to be true because that's what ALL ENGINEERS must do.  You need to somehow establish that the point on that curve they chose is the wrong one and was demonstrably wrong a priori.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Some more sense on risk, via Bruce Schneier:
Creators.com | Lenore Skenazy | Hot Dog! Stand Back 200 Feet!

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement calling for large-type warning labels on the foods that kids most commonly choke on — grapes, nuts, carrots, candy and public enemy No. 1: the frank. Then the lead author of the report, pediatric emergency room doctor Gary Smith, went one step further.

He called for a redesign of the hot dog.

The reason, he said, is that hot dogs are "high-risk." But are they? I mean, I certainly diced my share of Oscar Mayers when my kids were younger, but if once in a while we stopped for a hot dog and I gave it to 'em whole, was I really taking a crazy risk?

Here are the facts: About 61 children each year choke to death on food, or one in a million. Of them, 17 percent — or about 10 — choke on franks. So now we are talking 1 in 6 million. This is still tragic; the death of any child is. But to call it "high-risk" means we would have to call pretty much all of life "high-risk." Especially getting in a car! About 1,300 kids younger than 14 die each year as car passengers, compared with 10 a year from hot dogs.

What's happening is that the concept of "risk" is broadening to encompass almost everything a kid ever does, from running to sitting to sleeping. Literally!
The story Skenazy cites about children not being safe running (a school which banned tag because it requires running, which in turn leads to falls, which may lead to injury) is a great example of the futility of trying to eliminate all risk and the folly of treating multi-objective situations as unidimensional. You ban games which have kids run because it's risky to their health. So they run less. So they gain weight. So they become obese. Which is risky to their health.

This is the same as the TSA making air travel safer but more costly, causing more people to drive, causing more people to die in highway car crashes, which were a bigger threat than air travel was in the first place.

You're never going to keep anybody safe if you imagine you can just de facto outlaw some activity with non-zero risk. People are complex, even children. They aren't simple enough to impose non-riskiness top down.

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