David, the replies you received offer very good advice. Years ago after reading Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world By Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I attempted to draw some parallels to laboratory safety. Below is my attempt. Taleb is a excellent author but if you decide to read his entire book I suggest that you first familiarize yourself with the ten principles, found at the end of his book. You will be better position to understand where he is leading the reader.
Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
1. What is fragile should break early while it is still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail. Evolution in economic life helps those with the maximum amount of hidden risks – and hence the most fragile – become the biggest.
What is life threatening or result in physical impairment should break early while it is still small.
2. No socialization of losses and privatization of gains. Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalized; whatever does not need a bail-out should be free, small and risk-bearing. We have managed to combine the worst of capitalism and socialism. In France in the 1980s, the socialists took over the banks. In the US in the 2000s, the banks took over the government. This is surreal.
Whatever may prevent the loss of life or physical impairment should be required and whatever does not result in loss of life or physical impairment should be free of restrictions, small, and risk-bearing.
3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus. The economics establishment (universities, regulators, central bankers, government officials, various organizations staffed with economists) lost its legitimacy with the failure of the system. It is irresponsible and foolish to put our trust in the ability of such experts to get us out of this mess. Instead, find the smart people whose hands are clean.
PI's who were leading a research group blindfolded (and lab personnel are injured) should never be allowed to lead a research group again.
4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks. Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show “profits” while claiming to be “conservative”. Bonuses do not accommodate the hidden risks of blow-ups. It is the asymmetry of the bonus system that got us here. No incentives without disincentives: capitalism is about rewards and punishments, not just rewards.
This one is hard to change. Seems right on the money (no bonus for this one, promotions or awards).
5. Counter-balance complexity with simplicity. Complexity from globalization and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products. The complex economy is already a form of leverage: the leverage of efficiency. Such systems survive thanks to slack and redundancy; adding debt produces wild and dangerous gyrations and leaves no room for error. Capitalism cannot avoid fads and bubbles: equity bubbles (as in 2000) have proved to be mild; debt bubbles are vicious.
6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning. Complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it. Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.
Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning. Complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it. Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.
Lab workers need protection, supervision and training from risky or untried experiments. Hazard analysis need developing and review prior to the start of work.
7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence”. Cascading rumors are a product of complex systems. Governments cannot stop the rumors. Simply, we need to be in a position to shrug off rumors, be robust in the face of them.
8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains. Using leverage to cure the problems of too much leverage is not homeopathy, it is denial. The debt crisis is not a temporary problem, it is a structural one. We need rehab.
Not sure if this applies. Number 4 above seems to address this problem.
9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets or fallible “expert” advice for their retirement. Economic life should be definancialized. We should learn not to use markets as storehouses of value: they do not harbor the certainties that normal citizens require. Citizens should experience anxiety about their own businesses (which they control), not their investments (which they do not control).
Laboratory workers depend fallible “expert” advice for their safety.
10. Make an omelet with the broken eggs. Finally, this crisis cannot be fixed with makeshift repairs, no more than a boat with a rotten hull can be fixed with ad-hoc patches. We need to rebuild the hull with new (stronger) materials; we will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into Capitalism 2.0 by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, converting debt into equity, marginalizing the economics and business school establishments, shutting down the “Nobel” in economics, banning leveraged buyouts, putting bankers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who got us here, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties.
Finally, broken safety culture cannot be fixed with makeshift repairs, no more than a boat with a rotten hull can be fixed with ad-hoc patches. We need to rebuild the hull with new (stronger) materials; we will have to remake the system before it does so itself. Let us move voluntarily into strong institutional safety culture by helping what needs to be broken break on its own, eliminating unsafe practices, marginalizing the poor performers, putting managers where they belong, clawing back the bonuses of those who created the broken culture, and teaching people to navigate a world with fewer certainties.
Application of these principles will take us to a place (lab) more resistant to black swans.
I recently received the inquiry below. I would appreciate your advice and perspectives, which I can pass along.
“I have a friend who is concerned about one of their advanced laboratories. The instructor who teaches it has several hazardous experiments in the curriculum, and there have been sodium fires and other small accidents in the lab. The students don’t have much preparation or thorough safety training for each experiment (they often don’t know exactly what they’ll be doing that day until after they arrive at lab). When it was reported as a concern to the safety officer and department chair, the response was that the instructor was a senior faculty member who had been teaching this a long time and knew what he was doing. The senior faculty member assured them that he didn’t think there was any reason for concern, so my friend’s requests for the problem to be addressed were essentially ignored. My friend is still quite concerned about laboratory safety (particularly since some staff and students have also expressed concern). I wasn’t sure if ACS had any resources beyond the published booklets (which don’t help if people won’t acknowledge there is a problem). Do you know of any “experts” or other resources who could provide a review or lend some credibility to her concerns?”
David C. Finster
Professor, Department of Chemistry
University Chemical Hygiene Officer
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