Degraded mode of operation raises safety risks

A degraded mode of operation restricts management systems, and raises health and safety risks which are unexpected in the ideal or textbook mode of operation.

Degraded operations could result in isolated non-conformances, such as a signal failure (Johnson & Shear 2010), or affect all management systems in an entire organisation, as well as some of its clients, and the public, writes logistics specialist Mabila Mathebula.

[UPDATE: This post is based on a paper that Mabila Mathebula and PN Sopazi, of the SA Railway Safety Regulator, presented at Africa Rail in Sandton in May 2016. It was voted the best presentation at the conference].

Operations management textbooks often emphasise quality management systems, and students learn Japanese concepts to manage a system efficiently and effectively.

However these textbooks do not introduce students to a degraded mode of operation, since the curriculum oscillates between normal and abnormal operations, such as emergency response.

Excellence or degradation is entrenched in culture

Heredity is associated with biology and culture. An organisation could also inherit some degraded equipment, and/or a culture of degraded mode of operations from its predecessors, and hand down such a culture from generation to generation.

Such a culture internalises and legitimises its modus operandi.

When an organisation accepts a degraded mode of operation, incidents and accidents are bound to occur, and to become acceptable.

Degradation and compromise cause disasters

The Titanic disaster in 1912 is a typical example of a system that operated under a degraded mode of operation.

Some rivets in corners could not be reached by the steam hammer, and were fastened by hand. Several compromises were made in construction.

There was a smouldering coal fire on board. The Titanic had 16 lifeboats and four collapsible boats. At full capacity they could hold about 1700 people, but there were 2200 passengers and crew on board.

Captain EJ Smith did not understand the dynamics of steering a large ship, and could not grasp the meaning of the warnings signs from another ship. The binoculars were not at the lookout post.

Johnson and Shea (2010) demonstrate that airline disasters such as Uberlingen, Linate and Charles de Guale, were attributable to a degraded mode of operations.

Call a roll of a degraded mode of operations in mines, logistics, construction, and any other industry:
[] signal failure
[] staff shortage
[] limited secondary systems
[] limited experience
[] legacy equipment
[] intermittent failures
[] concurrent breakdowns
[] and many more.

Systems were designed to function together, without anomaly, but degraded conditions subject systems to different modes of operation, not meeting initial good intentions.

Abnormal operations are situations in which some elements of the management system are dysfunctional, such as entering or operating under severe weather conditions.

Emergency situations are unforeseen or unplanned events that are life-threatening. Their causes are many, and some of their effects become causes in themselves.

If a hypothetical international transport rating agency were to rate the state of public transportation in South Africa, the outcome would not be perfect, not entire junk status, but somewhere between; a degraded mode of operation.

It is bitter pill to swallow that our trains, taxis and buses continue to operate in a restricted manner.

We learn to accept degraded mode at work

In most organisations, a degraded mode of operation is soon internalised as normal, and all the interventions are based on the degraded mode of operation.

According to the National Road Safety Strategy 2016 -2020, defective traffic lights contribute to 2.8% of fatal road crashes.

For example, in Johannesburg, traffic lights go off when it rains, creating a traffic gridlock.

The Star (2016) reports that cities such as Seattle, London and Cape Town experience wet weather conditions throughout the year, yet the traffic lights operate normally.

Bertha Scheepers of the Johannesburg Road Agency (JRA) launched damaging criticism on thieves and vandals for the failure of signals.

Metro Rail’s train services are also affected by plethora of cable theft and vandalism.

In 1986 a commission of inquiry led by Dr WJ De Villiers was appointed to look into South African Transport Services’ Strategic Planning, Management Practices and Systems.

The De Villiers Report recommended that capital investment in railways should be restricted to an absolute minimum.

Infrastructure includes:
(a) Track and Formation
(b) Bridges and Structures
(c) Signalling Systems
(d) Communication Systems
(e) Electric Traction Systems
(f) Rolling Stock Fleet.

It does not take rocket science to identify that the lack of investment, as well as the shortage of critical skills, compel our railways into a degraded mode of operation.

For example, signal failure and poor communication systems are commonplace in daily operations.

Incident prevention requires plant and culture

The primary aim of infrastructure investment should be to take an organisation from the slippery slope of degraded mode of operation, into standard operation.

However, if the culture of the organisation remains in degraded mode, the investment would be futile.

All industries, and their regulators, operators, inspectors and auditors, should answer whether inspections and audits tailored around degraded mode of operation, or normal operations.

Do operators feel the need and the urgency to move out a degraded mode of operations into normal operations?

Britain and Australia are more advanced than South Africa, yet the Glenbrook Collison incident in Australia, and Ladbroke accident in London, happened because of degraded modes of operation (Johnson & Shea, 2010).

To climb the ladder of a developmental state, South Africa needs to heap coals on the fires of social cohesion and technical competence.

Most people depend on public transport and various state services. We all need to acknowledge that our public services are operating under a degraded mode of operation, but never accept it.

I acknowledge Dr Peaceman ‘Mtakatata’ Sopazi for introducing me to the concept of a degraded mode of operation.

• Mabila Mathebula is a senior researcher at the South African Railway Safety Regulator (RSR). He writes on in his personal capacity. The above post is an extract from a referenced paper to be presented at an international railway conference in Sandton in 2016.

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Mabila Mathebula

Mabila Mathebula (BA North West University, BA Hon UNISA, MBA Milpark Business School, Post Graduate Diploma in Advanced Project Management at Cranefield College), is currently engaged in a PhD study in construction health and safety management.

5 thoughts on “Degraded mode of operation raises safety risks

  1. Excellent article. I totally agree on one point: Limited experience. Shortage of skills ? Ask the question why there’s a shortage ? It’s not rocket science. I’ve been in the mining industry since 1995. The downfall of artisan skills could be seen a mile away. Learners qualify in a trade today, tomorrow they are the “fast tracked” foreman or engineer to be. EE – Not the skilled worker for the job, but the one that keeps the company’s EE status afloat.

  2. What is the purpose of this article? It’s just everyday work issues presented as something that has just been discovered. Management positions require persons to apply their knowledge and skills to overcome challenges that may arise and plan for the future. This is a normal mode of operation in any organization.

  3. Deepchund, the purpose of the article is to highlight that normal operation is not synonymous with a degraded mode of operation.
    For example, the Shinkasen (a Japanese high speed train) has been thriving under normal operation since 1964. If the operation is degraded, all stakeholders work together to restore normal operation.
    Any system could remain operational under normal, or abnormal, or emergency, or degraded mode.
    The Federal Railroad Federation in the USA has issued a directive to its railways to install a new safety technology, called positive train control (PTC), a complex technology that limits the speed of trains automatically in designated zones, using GPS and other communication tools, to prevent deterioration of ops into degraded mode.
    Degraded mode of operation is not normal day to day, that would be a gross understatement!

  4. This article is based on a paper that Mabila Mathebula and PN Sopazi, of the SA Railway Safety Regulator, presented at Africa Rail in Sandton in May 2016. It was voted the best presentation at the conference. congratulates the authors.

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