Coordinability and Consistency in Accident Causation and Prevention: Formal System Theoretic Concepts for Safety in Multilevel Systems

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Although a “system approach” to accidents in sociotechnical systems has been frequently advocated, formal system theoretic concepts remain absent in the literature on accident analysis and system safety. To address this gap, we introduce the notions of coordinability and consistency from the hierarchical and multilevel systems theory literature. We then investigate the applicability and the importance of these concepts to accident causation and safety. Using illustrative examples, including the worst disaster in aviation history, and recent incidents in the United States of aircraft clipping each other on the tarmac, we propose that the lack of coordinability is a fundamental failure mechanism causing or contributing to accidents in multilevel systems. We make a similar case for the lack of consistency. Coordinability and consistency become ingredients for accident prevention, and their absence fundamental failure mechanisms that can lead to system accidents. Finally, using the concepts introduced in this work, we identify several venues for further research, including the development of a theory of coordination in multilevel systems, the investigation of potential synergies between coordinability, consistency, and the high reliability organizations paradigm, and the possibility of reframing the view that “sloppy management is the root cause of many industrial accidents” as one of lack of coordinability and/or consistency between management and operations. By introducing and expanding on the concepts of coordinability and consistency, we hope to contribute to the thinking about, and the to language of, accident causation, and prevention and to add to the intellectual toolkit of safety professionals and academics.

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