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Living With High-Risk Conclusions
on January 29, 2004
I have been mulling over this review for a while now, and am still undecided on the correct rating to award this book. On the one hand Perrow offers some genuine insight into systems safety, but frequently does not understand the technicalities of the systems (or occasionally their operators) well enough to make informed decisions and recommendations. In more egregious cases he comes to conclusions that are guaranteed to reduce safety (as when he argues that supertankers should be run by committee, and the usefulness of the Captain is no more) or are merely the cherished liberal opinions of an Ivy League sociologist (he teaches at Yale) as when he argues for unilateral nuclear disarmament, government guaranteed income plans, and heroin maintenance (distribution) plans for addicts "to reduce crime." In the case of disarmament, remember this was written during the early 1980s while the Soviet Union was still a huge threat...complete nuclear disarmament would have resulted in fewer US nuclear accidents, but would NOT have made us safer as we would have been totally vulnerable to intentional nuclear attack. He has great personal animosity toward Ronald Reagan, and makes inflammatory statements in the mining section that mining safety regulations would surely be weakened by Reagan, causing many more accidents and deaths. Later in the same section, though, he concludes that mining is inherently dangerous, and no amount of regulation can make it safe. So which is it? Any of this is, at very best, folly, but regardless of political bent (he is a self avowed "leftist liberal") has absolutely no place in a book ostensibly on safety systems. As such I think portions of this book show what is so wrong in American academia today: even genuinely excellent research can be easily spoiled when the conclusions are known before the research is started. This is one of the many reasons that physical scientists scorn the social sciences, and it doesn't have to be this way.
Having said all that there IS a wealth of good information and insight in this book when Perrow sticks to systems and their interactions. The book contains the finest analysis commercially available of the Three Mile Island near-disaster, and his insight about how to improve safety in nuclear plants was timely when the book was written in 1984, though many improvements have been made since then.
Speaking as a commercial airline pilot, I feel his conclusions and observations about aircraft safety were generally true at the time of printing in 1984, but now are miserably out of date. (The same is true of the Air Traffic Control section.) I believe that he generally has a good layman's grasp of aviation, so I am willing to take it as a given that he has a knowledgeable layman's comprehension of the other systems discussed. As an aside, he never gets some of the technicalities quite right. For instance, he constantly uses the term 'coupling' incorrectly in the engineering sense; this is particularly objectionable in the aviation system where it has a very specific meaning to aeronautical engineers and pilots.
The section on maritime accidents and safety is superbly written. Here I am not an expert, but there seems to be a high degree of correlation with the aviation section. His section on "Non Collision Course Collisions" by itself makes this book a worthwhile read. He presents very compelling information and reasoning until the very end of the section, at which point he suggests that since ships are now so big, large ships (especially supertankers) essentially should have no Captain, but should be run by committee. This is an invalid conclusion, and he offers no evidence or substantial argument to support that idea. Clearly, it is an idea hatched in his office and not on a ship (or plane.) There always needs to be a person in a place of ultimate authority in fast moving, dynamic systems, or the potential exists to have crew members begin to work at direct odds with each other, making a marginal situation dangerous. Ironically, in the very same part of the discussion where he concludes that there should be no Captain, he has hit upon the key to the problem. He mentions that he was pleased to see that some European shippers were now training their crews together as a team, and that he expected this to lower accident rates. He is, in fact, exactly right about that. Airlines now have to train crews in Crew Resource Management (CRM) in which each member of the crew has the right and obligation to speak up if they notice anything awry in the operation of their aircraft, and the Captain makes it a priority to listen to the input of others, as everyone has a different set of concerns and knowledge. In this way, the Captain becomes much less dictatorial, and becomes more of a final decision maker after everyone has had their say. It IS critical, though, to maintain someone in command, as there is no time to assemble a staff meeting when a ship is about to run aground, or a mid-air collision is about to occur. Many other well documented studies and books have come to this conclusion, and in the airline industry since CRM was introduced the accident rate has decreased dramatically.
Overall, if you have a desire to understand high risk systems, this book has a lot of good information in it; however it is woefully out of date and for that reason among others, I can only recommend it with reservations. A better and much more contemporary introductory book on the subject is 'Inviting Disaster' by James R. Chiles. Remember, this book was written over twenty years ago, and much has changed since then. There is knowledge to be gleaned here, but you have to be prepared to sort the wheat from the chaff.