How to Avoid “Normal” Accidents? Risk Management As a Dynamic and Inter-Occupational Negotiated Decision Process

Monday, July 14, 2014: 4:00 PM
Room: 423
Oral Presentation
Charles STOESSEL , Ecole des Mines de Nantes, France
Stephanie TILLEMENT , Ecole des Mines de Nantes, Nantes, France
Benoit JOURNE , Nantes University, France
This communication aims to describe how two high-risk organizations are operated, i.e. nuclear power plants and railway operation system. These technologies are so complex that ambiguous situations often arise. Organizations’ response to uncertainty usually relies on procedures. Despite a huge amount of technical documents, applying a procedure is not such an easy task to perform. The chosen one must fit the situation and help to make sense (Weick, 1995) of it. As they appear, “normally disturbed situations” (Journé, 1999) seem to be quite unique. Due to systems' complexity, the process may be in different phases, workers teams may be available or not…Thus coping with technological complexity and uncertainty implies operators to make “difficult tradeoffs and decisions about how much risk is acceptable and even how to measure the risk” (Leveson et al, 2009, 240). Rather than focusing on major failures, the communication zooms on day-to-day activities, on how operators make technical decisions that try to encompass all the demanding issues of high-risk systems (safety, system availability, workers’ safety, environmental protection, etc.).

Both organizations studied are characterized by a strong technical and social division of work: high-risk systems operators turn to be specialists in their field (production, safety, maintenance, etc.). Yet, these specialists are interdependent regarding the organizations’ functioning: organizational reliability thus relies on articulation between humans, and between humans and techniques (Perrow, 1984). Our empirical results describe in depth the nature of arrangements and negotiations made within and between occupational groups to articulate the work. To increase decision-making rationality, professionals communicate with each other. They develop argumentation and explicitation practices to make their point visible and to contribute to the collective bargain about technical decisions that have to be made. In sum, a major way to cope with complexity relies on communications performed in situation, especially during technical points-of-view confrontations.