Thursday, May 19, 2016

NTSB report on Philadelphia Amtrak crash has implications for personnel, when security automation could have protected workers from their own human errors


There are workplace ethics implications to how we interpret the NTSB findings of the Amtrak train wreck in Philadelphia in May 2015, here. Everything in this post is "impersonal." 

The train engineer lost “situational awareness” when distracted by workplace-related radio chatter (not cell phone) from other trains about rocks thrown at trains in the area.

It’s certainly true, then, that from a personnel issue, there are extenuating circumstances regarding the engineer’s  performance in an unexpected situation.  There was possibly a perceived terror threat, and if perpetrators for the rock throwing were apprehended, they would face prosecution to the full extent of the law. And in one of the most curved sections of track in the NE corridor (I have ridden it many times), Amtrak had not yet implemented “positive train control”, which would have prevented the accident. 

Still, one of the points of the workplace is that the worker, if professional, steps up to the occasion when challenged.  In my experience in IT, a lot of that happened when “on call” for production problems.  More seriously, it was to avoid mistakes in handling production files and software that could cause catastrophe. 

Over time, the security to protect the worker from his own mistakes got better, at least during my own “beautiful career”.  Starting in the late 1980s, it became standard practice in many (IBM) shops to deny applications programmers routine update access to production elements.  By the early 1990s, elevation procedures were typically locked down to guarantee load module integrity. Of course, elevation procedures had to be enforced by management and data control, and in the earliest days sometimes they were not. 

Even so, there is no such thing as a right to be protected from every conceivable mistake one could make in any conceivable situation.  That’s the point of having a job as a human.

I wonder how such security plays out in workplaces like Facebook and Google. 

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