Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Enabling Safer Design Via Improved Understandings of Knowledge-Related Hazards: A Role for Cross-Disciplinarity

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Enabling Safer Design Via Improved Understandings of Knowledge-Related Hazards: A Role for Cross-Disciplinarity

Article excerpt


It is proposed that cross-disciplinarity is required to achieve safe design. By way of introduction, consider some consequences of "unsafe" design.

Examples of well-known catastrophic industrial accidents include the 1984 Union Carbide accident in Bhopal, India, which is commonly cited as the world's worst industrial disaster, and the 1986 nuclear power-plant disaster at Chernobyl, Ukraine, which is thought to be the world's worst nuclear accident.

Poorly informed management and design decisions, typically combined with cost cutting, are often a contributing factor in industrial accidents (Reason, 1990; Kletz, 1994). The 1984 Union Carbide Bhopal accident is estimated to have caused at least 3000 immediate deaths due to a toxic gas leak, 5000 subsequent deaths, and serious injury to approximately 100,000 people. To this day, the site remains highly contaminated, and toxins are continuing to leak into soil and groundwater. Instead of facing litigation and providing compensation, Union Carbide ceased operations in India and refused to attend legal proceedings. (1) The accident had multiple causes, but contributing factors included the design of the plant, failure to heed prior warnings, and failure to transfer safety-critical knowledge to relevant employees.

Less well known is that only a small minority of industrial fatalities are due to catastrophic accidents. Most are caused by routine accidents, such as being struck by a moving vehicle or falling from height. In 2001-2002, 297 Australian fatalities were compensated as resulting from workplace activities (NOHSC, 2003a; 2003b). Of these, most of the fatalities were in construction, transport/storage, manufacturing and the business/services sectors. Illnesses attributed to work-related activities account for many more fatalities. From 1998 to 2000, 1172 Australian cases of mesothelioma were attributed to exposure to asbestos (HSE, 2003). It is estimated that in 2001-2002, 2.3 million people in Great Britain had an illness that they believed was due to, or exacerbated by, their current or past employment activities (HSE, 2003). In addition to harm done to human lives, any estimate of the total cost of unsafe industrial practices would need to take into account the harm caused to water supplies, soils, plant and animal life and other aspects of the biosphere.


Knowledge-related hazards are understood here as hazards that arise from, or could be controlled by, activities that broadly fall under the umbrella of the discipline known as knowledge management. Several of the many various knowledge management activities are relevant, but most relevant here is the generation, storage, transfer and application of knowledge. To illustrate one of the connections between knowledge management and safety, it can be readily seen that certain industrial accidents, such as Union Carbide Bhopal, would be avoided if knowledge from previous incidents had been generated, stored and applied.

Considerable prior research has addressed attempts to characterise knowledge according to certain dichotomies (perhaps false) including tacit-explicit and declarative-dispositional. Tacit knowledge has been variously described as being subconsciously understood and applied, difficult to articulate, developed from direct experience and action, and "usually shared through highly interactive conversation, storytelling, and shared experience" (Zack, 1999); whereas explicit knowledge is that which can be readily codified, transferred and replicated. Knowledge has also been characterised as declarative or dispositional, where declarative knowledge refers to knowing about something, and dispositional knowledge refers to the ability to do something (Brown & Duguid, 2001).

While dichotomisations such as the above may tend to oversimplify, they may nevertheless be helpful for the purpose of understanding some of the following examples of knowledge-related hazards. …

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