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Better study of disaster causes urged

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Staff Writers
West Lafayette, Ind. (UPI) Jan 31, 2011
A new approach is needed to prevent "systematic failures" in complex systems involved in disasters like power blackouts and oil spills, a U.S. researcher says.

A Purdue University professor of chemical engineering says a cross-disciplinary approach is needed involving public policy experts so that scientific and engineering lessons learned from major disasters like the BP Deepwater Horizon spill or the 1984 Union Carbide chemical accident in Bhopal, India, which killed more than 2,000, get translated into effective policies and regulations, a university release said Monday.

"The striking similarities in such catastrophes necessitates a broader perspective to better understand such failures," Venkat Venkatasubramanian says. "In the history of systemic failures, a few disasters have served as wake-up calls."

As examples Venkatasubramanian cites the Flixborough chemical plant explosion in Britain in 1974 that killed 26 people, and the 1988 failure of an oil platform in the North Sea, which led to in 167 deaths and about $2 billion in losses.

"Such systemic failures are not limited to the chemical and petrochemical industries," he says.

"Typically, systemic failures occur due to fragility in complex systems," Venkatasubramanian says. "Modern technological advances are creating a rapidly increasing number of complex engineered systems, processes and products, which pose considerable challenges in ensuring their proper design, analysis, control, safety and management for successful operation over their life cycles."

The scale and complexity of interactions between elements, including people, in such systems-of-systems make them fragile, he says.

Investigations have shown that major disasters rarely occur due to a single failure of equipment or personnel.

Instead, layers of failures of equipment, systems, processes, regulations and people usually are at fault, he says.

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