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The Limits of Safety
The Limits of Safety
by Scott D. Sagan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $35.23
59 used & new from $17.61

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommendable book on systems safety., May 4, 2001
This review is from: The Limits of Safety (Paperback)
Scott Sagan examines the safety of the US nuclear weapons command organisations employing two opposing theoretical lines of thought: the so-called high reliability school and the normal accident school.
High reliability theory holds that accidents can be prevented through good organisational design, that safety is the priority organisational objective, that redundancy enhances safety, and that trial-and-error learning from near-misses can be effective. The contrasting perspective is that of normal accident theory in which the author combines Charles Perrow's system accident theory with theories of bounded rationality, specifically the garbage can theory of organisational behaviour by Cohen, March and Olsen. This view holds that accidents are inevitable in complex and tightly coupled systems, that safety is only one of a number of competing objectives, that redundancy increases the complexity and opaqueness of the system and thereby may compromise safety (indeed the provocative view that redundancy may even cause accidents) and that political infighting is a serious barrier to organisational learning.
After having laid out the propositions and assumptions of these competing theories, the books addresses the basic question of which of the two theories is more accurate drawing from analysis of the Cuban missile crisis, the B52 Thule bomber crash, the performance of US missile warning systems, and others. This selection of case studies is a tough test for normal accident theory. One would expect that the all-pervasive and dreadful consequences of an accidental nuclear war would make nuclear weapons safety a first priority at all levels of all involved organisations. The reader is left un-reassured of this. Scott Sagan provides numerous examples of political infighting, of organised cover-up, of normalisation of errors, of reinterpretation of failure as success, and of conflicts over parochial interests which are serious barriers to organisation learning. This is unpleasant reading, not the least because Sagan's account is limited to US experience only.
The implications of the issues raised in this book go far beyond nuclear weapons safety. Arguments are carefully reasoned, conclusions balanced, the style of writing clear, yet all details appear meticulously researched. 5 stars.


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