Non-Technical Skills A Primer

A Story of Revolutions and the Advent of High-Risk Industries

The story of human endeavour is one defined by truly remarkable achievements, worthy of celebration. From relatively humble beginnings as a species of hunter-gatherers roaming the savannah of Africa, we evolved and travelled from Africa into Eurasia and beyond.

Only 10,000 years ago, the Neolithic Revolution saw a transition from our traditional hunter-gatherer existence to a more stable social structure. This was enabled through our development of agriculture, through the ability to domesticate certain crops and animals, which in turn saw the creation of permanent settlements and the advent of many of the social structures we still see today. From small settlements grew larger villages, which in turn interacted through commerce. Then, larger social structures were created, and onwards to larger civilisations. Empires rose and fell as humans became truly dominant over the rest of the natural world.

Then, only 250 years ago, the Industrial Revolution saw another huge transition in human society and the emergence of a modern world. From a world where almost everything was created by hand, now machines dominated manufacture. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, we, as a species, were reliant on simply harnessing the power of natural elements: earth, air, fire and water. The risks associated with these elements had been known for much of our evolution as a species. Accordingly, the management of those risks was second nature to us as a species. Safety was a matter of respecting the elements, which were knowable and observable. As cultures developed, mythology was created to provide cautionary tales and describe the parameters of human capability. In ancient Greece, the legend of Daedalus and Icarus sets this out precisely. After crafting a set of wings from wax and feathers, Daedalus warns Icarus to respect the technology and not to commit an act of hubris by attempting to do what only gods, not mortals, could achieve. Icarus, however, flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, whereby his wings were destroyed and he fell to his death in the sea. In the pre-industrial world, everyday risks were much more universally understood.

In contrast to the agrarian world, the Industrial Revolution created a new class of high-risk human enterprises. Factories were born, and mass production was achieved through the use of machine tools. As never before, new technologies enabled us to transform the elements in ways that extended human capability far beyond what previously could have been imagined. What was once considered hubris was now considered innovation and growth.

As a defining component of the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine radically changed both industry and, in turn, transport. The advent of the steam engine quickly enabled mass rapid transport, and within decades, railways were commonplace. These new capabilities for the transportation of people and goods also led, across time, to significant social change.1

Only 150 years ago, the potential of electricity was realised, and the Second Industrial Revolution occurred. The period leading up to World War I was one of extremely rapid technological advancement fuelled by the potential provided by electricity. As never before, humans could harness the power of the physical world and put it to use in serving our natural tendencies towards creativity and innovation. Across successive stages of industrial revolution, exponential growth in technology occurred, and the previously unimaginable become commonplace. In a tiny space of time from an evolutionary perspective, we had created a world entirely reliant on high-risk industries, a term that describes any endeavour where a breakdown in safety can lead to a catastrophic outcome in terms of loss of life or significant environmental and economic damage.

Much has been written about the emergence of high-risk industries and the ways in which we have attempted to manage the risks associated with these forms of enterprise.2,3 The definition of a high- risk industry is largely self-evident, and the term captures all human endeavours where there is potential for significant harm to people or the environment. Through these new industrial imperatives, human society created space for endeavours where risk was often unimaginable until it appeared, usually with catastrophic outcomes.

Today, the high-risk industry takes many forms, a reflection of the way in which our remarkable achievements as a species have come with myriad new ways of causing catastrophic harm to ourselves and our environment. From catastrophes in the generation of power, such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, through to accidents in processing industries, such as Bhopal, the new ways in which we interact with elements from the earth can have catastrophic consequences. Likewise, the miracles of flight have been associated with catastrophic events, as is seen every month in commercial aviation and less frequently in disasters such as the Challenger and Columbia space shuttles. Even in the healthcare industry, where we have achieved remarkable feats in the face of disease, patients are frequently harmed or killed by unmanaged risk.

The scientific domain of Human Factors has formed an important element of improving safety in high-risk industries. Human Factors is the science of people at work; it deals with applying an understanding of our characteristics, strengths and weaknesses to the design of our tools, technologies and systems of work. One of the most critical considerations of a sophisticated approach to Human Factors is the need to frame our daily endeavours in high-risk industries within the context of our extremely rapid transition from pre-agricultural hunter gathering to a post-industrial technological world. From an engineering perspective, each and every human design feature reflects so much more of the millions of years of our pre-technological hunter- gatherer ancestors than it does of our nascent exposure to high-risk industries. We are infants in a complex play-space, one that we have only just created ourselves, and it is up to us to ensure that we do ourselves no harm. Unfortunately, the way in which we have traditionally approached safety management has not always served us sufficiently well in this regard.

 
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