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The limitations of automation

Author : Geoff Parry, Chester

31 January 2013

Incidents at Buncefield, etc. reminded me of the time I spent as a senior plant operator at the Shell Stanlow refinery back in the 1950s and 60s. By the time of my retirement there had been an enormous amount of automation installed, which inevitably resulted in a reduction in manning levels. 

Even though instrumentation was extremely reliable, the management considered it prudent to continue with the established routine of manual monitoring of critical areas of the plant at frequent intervals. This proved to be a very wise move considering the number of incidents, which might have gone unnoticed otherwise.

The obsession with manpower reduction is being challenged more and more; but while I am not suggesting a return to the routines in existence then, I do think when reading about these tragedies that control room staff appear to rely too much on CCTV and complex instrument results.

There is no thoroughly reliable substitute for full use of the five senses and a good strong pair of legs!

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