Recent technically should not exist (La Porte,
Recent decades have seen a substantial increase in literature concerning the successful mitigation and regulation of major hazard risks, heightened by an increasingly complex surrounding environment (Lekka, 2011; Weick,1999). Initial research focusing on the organisational catalysts of accidents within technical systems resulted from a series of high-scale industrial disasters, most noticeably the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident (Vasvári, 2015). Whereby risk became recognised as an integral element of modern society from which sociologist Ulrich Beck’s coined the term “risk society”.
Principally, two theories have served as justification for the occurrence of accidents in hazardous and highly complex organisations; High Reliability Organisations (HRO) and Normal Accident Theory (NAT) (Lekka, 2011). Perrow’s (1984) NAT bases itself on the idea that accidents are ‘inevitable’ in high-risk systems characterised by interactive complexity and tight coupling. Interactive complexity insinuates the erratic nature of system sequences whereby unexpected events may lay invisible and not initially comprehensible whereas, tight coupling refers to the large “interdependency between system components” (Marais, 2004). These characteristics prevent dispersion of knowledge and minimise time available for the system to react and ultimately prevent potential errors, thus the organisation is deemed as ‘high-risk’ with its complexity viewed as the catalyst of disasters (Perrow, 2011).
Criticisms have arisen over the theory’s pessimistic outlook and inability to capture the circumstances of system success, therefore narrowing its situation applicability due to this specific focus on organisational failings (Hopkins, 1999). These criticisms are addressed by the HRO school of thought, whereby the values of a safety culture, resilience management and, high reliability have proven to be preludes of adaptive organisational structures, by which effective protection is offered under technologically taxing conditions (Weick, 1999). HRO’s operate in complex environments where failure potentially has far-reaching and catastrophic consequences, yet these organisations manage to operate virtually ‘accident-free’ (Mellor, 2015; Lekka, 2011). La Porte (1996) argues that accidents are no longer ‘inevitable’ if organisations are able to enact fundamental processes that effectively anticipate, prevent and contain errors when, and even prior to, their occurrence.
Thus, a theoretical shift in the idea that organisations are the no longer catalysts for disasters but successful preventatives (Weick, 1999, Roberts, 2005 and La Porte, 1996). Conceptually, recent developments in defining HRO’s has shifted from Robert’s traditional statistical measure of failure possibility versus failure occurrence, towards the degree to which organisations are continually seeking to improve their reliability and capacity to ‘bounce back’ from errors experienced (Health.org.uk, 2011). Thus, a more prominent emphasis on ‘reliability achieving’ rather than ‘reliability seeking’ organisations arise. (Health.org.
uk, 2011). The initial ‘error-free’ paradigm focused on three highly complex industries; Petrochemical, Aviation and Nuclear all of which display high levels of ‘dynamic stability’ facilitated through mutual commonalities in cultural response and technical design (Rochlin, 1996). Despite exhibiting Perrow’s traits of a tightly-coupled system a limited number of ‘Normal Accidents’ occur and so by definition, these systems technically should not exist (La Porte, 1996). HRO theorists suggest that this is owed to organisational encouragement of ‘Collaboratory models’ of risk management whereby there is an ability to counteract ‘regular’ errors through continually integrating the concept of risk into organisational behaviours and practices.