Systems Engineering Seminar

Engineering Safety: Lessons in Risk Communication from the BP Disaster

Presented by:
Beverly A. Sauer, Ph.D.

November 2, 2010, 1:00 p.m.
Building 3 Auditorium


Engineering Safety: Lessons in Risk Communication from the BP Disaster

Following the BP oil spill, regulatory agencies faced increasing criticism about their ability to regulate and manage risk. The Minerals Management Service had failed to discover flaws in BP’s risk management program. Few agency personnel understood the safety mechanisms in place or the massive risks inherent in BP’s Blow-Out Protector. They did not discover flaws in BP’s disaster planning or take action to remediate the myriad small failures and omissions that contributed to the disaster—including the last-minute decision to replace the “mud” with seawater in the final hours before the disaster.

As the public media argued, the regulatory deck seemed to be stacked in favor of BP because regulatory agencies lacked the technical expertise or experience to evaluate risks that might occur as companies like BP pushed the envelope on technological development. More important, agencies lacked the funding that would enable them to compete on even footing with BP’s massive technical experience and technically-advanced workforce.

This presentation will re-visit the BP disaster from the point of view of system safety fundamentals in order to answer the question: How can agencies and non-technical personnel evaluate risk in emerging technologies? What key fundamental features of system safety were absent in the critical risk decisions preceding the disaster? How can we learn to understand complex technologies ‘not in our field’ without increasing administrative burden or increasing the costs of regulatory compliance?

As this presentation argues, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to discover faults in a system—particularly when risk decision-makers fail to take into account the fundamental material principles that govern good engineering design and implementation. Ultimately, this presentation argues, the visible--and audible--gaps in communication at all levels in BP’s deepwater drilling project should have provided signs of deeper engineering flaws in the system. In getting back to fundamentals of communication and engineering design, systems engineers can also improve fault management in systems.



Photo of Beverly Sauer Beverly A. Sauer, Ph.D. serves on the Advisory Board of the Systems Engineering Education and Development (SEED) program at NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center, where she teaches courses in risk communication, cross-cultural communication, and Big Picture thinking. Sauer’s research focuses on the ways that multimodal communication (speech and gesture) affects the outcomes of risk decision-making in large systems.

Sauer has contributed to the national discussion on risk and safety in the BP Disaster as a commentator on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, NPR’s Science Friday, and China Radio International. Her analyses of the Upper Big Branch Mining Disaster and BP Oil Spill have also appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, Forbes, and the New York Daily News, among others.

Previously, Sauer has served as consultant to the NASA-CAIB Investigation, the Sago Mine Disaster, and the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse. In addition to her work in the public sphere, Sauer has had a distinguished academic career as Professor of the Practice at Georgetown University, in the McDonough School of Business; (Full) Professor at Johns Hopkins’ Carey School of Business, and Associate Professor of English and Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University, where she was awarded tenure in 1994.

Sauer has published widely on risk communication and rhetoric. She received five consecutive grants from the National Science Foundation for her work investigating the social and institutional dimensions of communication in complex technical systems. Her analysis of South African coal mine safety communication uses linguistic methods of analysis to overcome problems of incommensurability in risk communication where participants do not share a common language, education or culture.

Sauer’s first book, The Rhetoric of Risk (Routledge, 2003), was awarded Best Book in Scientific and Technical Communication from the National Council of Teachers of English. She is currently completing a second book Risk and Reconciliation for MIT Press based upon her on-site research in risk communication South African coal mines.



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