of the lessons from the Deepwater Horizon incident, now into its fourth month,
is that engineers must remain vigilant over the design, development and operations
of large-scale, complex, dynamic human-engineered systems. This includes assessing
the ethical responsibility associated with process management and maintenance.
Relying on systems — no matter how seemingly effective — without
routine maintenance verification has proven costly, and events in the Gulf
of Mexico offer a disturbing example of what can go wrong.
How to address these issues as a profession is difficult, especially since
engineers are often not directly involved in the routine monitoring of these
systems' worthiness. But as an organization that represents engineers, ASME
understands that we must play a role in defining a reliable infrastructure
that continually reduces risk and helps to keep those who operate these systems
from falling asleep at the wheel.
As such, we are working to develop programs that will convene groups of interdisciplinary
experts and government officials to discuss ways in which better safeguards
can be put in place for complex systems. The time is right for a cross-disciplined
approach to reviewing risk-management processes as they relate to complex
systems and engineering ethics.
Assessing risk is a rigorous process that involves computer modeling, probability
statistics, quantitative analysis, qualitative metrics, and other methodologies.
Protocols and scenarios are used to analyze sequences of events that can cause
an undesired consequence, as the probability of each scenario is determined
along with the magnitude of the consequences involved.
Some of the critical factors that are taken into account when analyzing the
risk from engineered systems, such as complex infrastructures like electric
power plants, are population size, local regulations, and proximity to sensitive
environmental areas. Another factor is economics. Design projects have a budget
dictating processes from material selection to the level of testing and maintenance
in a system.
As engineers, we possess the core competencies both to assess the technical
specifications of the components used in complex systems and to ensure that
those systems live up to the necessary standards for the life of the project.
All of us, along with policymakers, the public, and the media, have a role
to play in ensuring that proper risk management practices are in place where
critical complex systems exist, and that the risks don’t leave us vulnerable
to future disasters.
— Thomas G. Loughlin, Executive Director