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Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Engineering a safer world: Workshop explores safety in nuclear power plants, occupational health, aviation and medicine

April 23, 2012
Credit: MIT

Innovations in software and technology are creating increasingly complex systems: cars that park themselves; medical devices that automatically deliver drugs; and smartphones with the computing power of desktop computers, to name a few. Such complex systems allow us to do things that seemed difficult or impossible just a few years ago.

But Nancy Leveson, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, says increasing complexity is also making systems more vulnerable to accidents. What’s more, she says traditional safety engineering approaches are not very effective in keeping new and fast-evolving systems safe. For example, engineers typically evaluate the safety of a system by checking the performance of each of its components. Leveson argues that safety — particularly in complex systems — depends on more than a system’s individual parts.

For the past decade, Leveson has been championing a new, more holistic approach to safety engineering. In addition to analyzing systems’ technical components, her approach — dubbed STAMP, for System-Theoretic Accident Model and Processes — addresses the impacts of human, social, economic and governmental factors on safety.

Last week, Leveson hosted a three-day workshop at which more than 250 safety engineering professionals from around the world gathered to learn about STAMP and to explore the event’s theme, “Engineering a Safer World.” The event also coincided with the publication of Leveson's new book on the topic, titled Engineering a Safer World: Systems Thinking Applied to Safety.

The workshop drew participants from industries including aviation and automotive engineering, occupational health, missile defense, road tunnel safety, and medicine, some of whom gave presentations during the workshop.

In many cases, safety analyses are performed only after an accident has occurred. Several researchers at the workshop presented cases in which they used Leveson’s approach to identify causes of accidents.
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