How far have we come in 65 years of engineering practice?

All just history repeating - How we can learn from Murphy's law to improve process safety

I had to smile at this, fortunately no one was hurt

Sixty five years ago at a US army air force base in California a group of engineers were conducting high acceleration tests on chimpanzee and human test subjects. After one test run it was found that all the telemetry had been wired backwards and no data had been acquired. One of the engineers commented on this and his words went down in history. His name was Ed Murphy and he said

“If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then he will do it that way.”

This has gone down in history as Murphy’s law, and whether you know it as “if it can go wrong it will go wrong”, or whether you have been taught ‘defensive design’ or ‘human centered engineering’ it remains a useful shorthand for much of Human Factors practice in engineering.

So, how far have we come in 65 years of engineering practice? Not far if this report is to be believed

Human error blamed for toxic Russian rocket explosion: So, which way is up then?

It would seem that yet again a critical task relied on a human being reading a visual cue correctly to orientate the installation of a component. The technician installed the sensors with the wrong polarity. Exactly what happened in Murphy’s case 65 years ago in the California desert. Ironically Murphy was conducting his experiments in support of the US Army space programme.

When it’s critical that we install something in a particular orientation or configuration it is always good practice to ensure that the alternative installation is physically impossible. Especially in safety critical applications that we often find in the process and other high hazard industries.

Image credit: Craigboy via Wikimedia commons


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About the author

Tony Atkinson

I lead the ABB Consulting Operational Human Factors team. I've spent over 30 years in the process industries, working in control rooms around the world, in the fields of ergonomics, control and alarm systems, control room design and operational and cultural issues such as communications, competency and fatigue. I've been blogging on diverse topics that interest me in the widest sense of 'human factors', all of which share the same common element, the 'Mk.1 Human Being' and their unique limitations, abilities and behaviours. I'll discuss the technical and organisational issues that affect safety and performance of these process safety operators and technicians and how this impacts control rooms and the wider plant. However learning comes from many places and you can expect entries about aviation, automotive, marine, healthcare, military and many other fields. Outside of work, I indulge in travel, food, wine and flying kites to keep myself moderately sane. Please feel free to post your comments on each post. Blog entries are posted with no set frequency. To ensure you don't miss out on the latest blog post, click the button below to subscribe to email alerts when a new blog has been posted.
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