Normal Accidents Book Summary - Normal Accidents Book explained in key points
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Normal Accidents summary

Charles Perrow

Living with High-Risk Technologies

(9 ratings)
18 mins
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    Normal Accidents
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    Some disasters are both inevitable and unpredictable.

    Imagine you have an important job interview. Preoccupied, you step out the door without your keys, and the door locks behind you. That’s OK – you keep a door key hidden nearby.

    Wait, you forgot – your friend has it, and he lives across town. So you ask your neighbor for a lift, but his car won’t start.

    You rush to the bus stop only to discover that there’s a bus drivers’ strike, and all the taxis are occupied. Disparaged, you cancel the interview.

    Sometimes it just works out that way: rare sequences of events thwart precautions, such as safety devices, workarounds and backups.

    For example, your hidden key was a backup, but failed because you changed your plan and gave it to a friend. The bus system wasn’t a workaround because its drivers were on strike, and the resulting lack of cabs show how dependent, or coupled, the two transport systems were to one another.

    None of these errors would be a problem on their own. However, when they all interact with each other unexpectedly, they cause the entire system – and in this case your job interview – to fail.

    System accidents, where multiple failures result in disaster, are often so complicated that we can neither foresee nor comprehend them in real time.

    System accidents arise from a range of errors: in Design, Equipment, Procedure, Operator, Supplies and an unpredictable Environment – or DEPOSE, for short.

    The door-locking mechanism and lack of emergency taxi capacity, for example, were design errors. When the neighbor’s car failed to start, it was an equipment error. Not allowing extra time for delays on the way to your interview was a failure in procedure.

    The bus strike and the taxi shortage were failures in the environment. And finally, absent-mindedly leaving the house without your keys was an operator error.

    Of course, a system accident in which you miss an interview isn’t the end of the world. But what happens when one occurs at something like a nuclear or chemical plant?

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    What is Normal Accidents about?

    Normal Accidents delves into the accidents that can and have occurred in high-risk environments, like nuclear plants and dams, airplanes and even space. It shows us how mind-bogglingly complex modern systems have become, and that no one could possibly predict the trivial failures that cascade into catastrophe.

    Best quote from Normal Accidents

    In the 1920s, 31 out of the 40 Air Mail Service pilots died trying to meet schedules.

    —Charles Perrow
    example alt text

    Who should read Normal Accidents?

    • Anyone involved in complicated operations, like start-ups, research operations, or project management
    • Perfectionists or technological solutionists
    • Anyone who travels by plane or ship

    About the Author

    Charles Perrow is an emeritus professor of Sociology at Yale and a visiting professor at Stanford. Since its original publication in 1984, the award-winning Normal Accidents has been widely cited in academic indexes for both social science and science. Perrow has also written about organizational culture, juvenile detention systems and the treatment of AIDS.

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