Thursday, July 01, 2010
Blowout Preventers, BP, and Compensatory Behavior
Much attention has focused on why the blowout preventer failed on the BP oil well in the Gulf. I'd like to raise a different question. Could it be that the very presence of blowout preventers do not raise the safety of deep-water oil drilling, but instead actually enhance risk? Consider an essay that Malcolm Gladwell wrote many years ago, around the time that Diane Vaughan wrote her famous book about the Challenger space shuttle accident. Gladwell explained that people and organizations often engage in compensatory behavior after new safety systems have been put in place. He provides an example from a study of anti-lock braking systems conducted in Germany with taxi drivers. The study demonstrated that these new braking systems did not lead to enhanced safety because the taxi drivers engaged in compensatory behavior, i.e. they drove in a riskier fashion, knowing that they had this better braking system to "protect" them from their own behavior. Of course, organizations implement redundancies such as blowout preventers in pursuit of higher safety and lower risk of catastrophe. However, Gladwell's point about compensatory behavior, drawn from others' in-depth research, shows that redundancies do not always make systems safer. It could be that the very presence of blowout preventers has caused some oil drilling companies to become comfortable with taking additional risks. The same idea, of course, applies to many different types of redundant systems.