Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book Review: Limits of Safety

The Limits of Safety : Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons
The Limits of Safety : Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons

It's the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bombers sit fully armed at the end of the runway, awaiting the order to penetrate Russian airspace. At night, a sentry sights a man climbing over the fence. He shoots at the saboteur and sounds the alarm. Linked alarms go off at several nearby airbases, except one alarm isn't the sabotage alert klaxon, it's the alarm to launch the bombers. Crews pile into their aircraft and the bombers trundle down the taxiways. All of a sudden, lights appear on the runway. It's the base commander in a jeep flashing its headlights. He's called over to the other base and found out the situation and stops the bombers.

The saboteur was a grizzly bear.

This true story (I'm paraphrasing actually, you can read a sample on Google Books) starts a very interesting book analyzing US handling of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. How the Air Force (and Navy) handled The Bomb is used to teach all sorts of aspects of Safety/Reliability Engineering, from High Reliability Theory, to Complex Systems.

For a book primarily aimed at academic audiences, it's pretty readable. True stories of how we almost set the world on fire keep it interesting. There's also plenty of examples of robustness in the system, too. Taleb in the Black Swan mentioned the one group he's come in contact with that had the most robust view of risk was military officers (far better than bank officers).

I'm now working for a new client and the book should prove useful. This client is so anal-retentive about safety they have pee coloration charts above the urinals to tell whether or not you're dehydrated. This isn't for offshore workers, either. This is for downtown officeworkers.

Note: Image and title link lead to Good Reads.


Leigh C. said...

So, if the client is this anal-retentive about it, does this mean that flushing the toilets all at the same time in that same office will somehow destroy New Orleans? Just curious...


yo clay, off subject.

check out the pic in this story.

i wonder if it is from the same bolt in your july 7th post.


sorry the cut and paste didnt go thru.


kinda anti climatic at this point the rest of the url should read.


Peripatetic Engineer said...

For another aspect of governmental failures read "The Tender Ship" by Squires. He gives an excellent summary of the early failures of the M-16 in Viernam.

Clay said...

GYI- Probably not. That one struck the capitol building, I believe.

PE- "Tender Ship" is in my Amazon cart now. Anytime you can suggest old, out of print books that I wouldn't hear of otherwise, I like it.

Another note from the book was how the military always tried to play up their safety record to the civilian oversight committees/secretaries/etc. They would write about how wonderfully safe and successful one system was while leaving out all the mishaps, false returns, and mistakes. It's sort of like how Buck Turgidson said, "Sir, it's not fair to condemn the whole Human Reliability Program because of one failure."

Peripatetic Engineer said...

Well then, order "Inviting Disaster" by Chiles. He traces the causes and chain of events in several disasters. Its a good read and makes one think. After you read it, ponder this, the criteria at The Yellow Pectin is no more than two failures, human or otherwise are a credible scenario - is that a reasonable criteria?

Clay said...

We'll see...

Another coworker described their safety program as, "Maoist."

Tim said...

Looks interesting. I will check it out.