The New PSM Normal (4) — Automation

If you fly over the offshore platform of the future in a helicopter and look down you will see just two living beings: an operator and a dog. The operator’s job is to feed the dog; the dog’s job is to make sure that the operator doesn’t touch anything.

This is the fourth post in our series to do with the ‘New Normal’ as it applies to industrial safety. The series is written on the assumption that the current pandemic is so severe and so sudden that we cannot go back to the ‘Old Normal’. All aspects of our lives, including the way in which we manage safety, will change.

Of course, none of us know what the future holds. We are still in the middle of this pandemic; it is still growing and there seems to be no end in sight. Still, now is the time to consider what the future may hold and what opportunities may present themselves.

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

Milton Friedman

Some of the ideas that are “lying around” have been discussed in previous posts.

  • In The New PSM Normal (1) — Deflation we suggest that our economy is entering a time of deflation, which is defined as a situation where there are more goods and services available than there are people with money to purchase them.
  • In The New PSM Normal (2) — Do Less With More we consider the vulnerability of our “lean and mean” supply chains — a vulnerability that the virus has exposed. An effective industrial policy may be to install lots of spare equipment and redundancy to take care of surprises.
  • Although the pandemic is a crisis that is up front and center, we may find that the changes that are taking place in the oil industry will eventually have a greater impact. There has been considerable discussion to do with the low price of oil. What gets less attention, but which is actually more important, is the cost of finding and developing new sources of oil. This is an important but complex issue that will be discussed in a series of posts, starting with The New PSM Normal (3) — Peak Oil.

In this post we start to think think about automation. A steady and consistent trend in all industries over recent decades has been the installation of sophisticated control systems that provide tighter control of the processes that they are operating than can be achieved by human operators. These systems are also less costly than skill labor.

As we emerge from the pandemic we are likely to see two conflicting points of view. The first is that the economic incentives for installing these systems have not changed. Indeed, one advantage of an electronic systems is that they do not need to keep a social distance from one another. With regard to employment, it will be argued that efficient systems grow the overall business, and so allow for people to be employed in new areas.

On the other hand, with over 30 million people unemployed in the United States alone, there will be intense political pressure to put people to work, right now.