Finding and Fixing Systems Weaknesses: Probabilistic Methods and Applications of Engineering Risk Analysis

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Abstract

Methods of engineering risk analysis are based on a functional analysis of systems and on the probabilities (generally Bayesian) of the events and random variables that affect their performances. These methods allow identification of a system's failure modes, computation of its probability of failure or performance deterioration per time unit or operation, and of the contribution of each component to the probabilities and consequences of failures. The model has been extended to include the human decisions and actions that affect components' performances, and the management factors that affect behaviors and can thus be root causes of system failures. By computing the risk with and without proposed measures, one can then set priorities among different risk management options under resource constraints. In this article, I present briefly the engineering risk analysis method, then several illustrations of risk computations that can be used to identify a system's weaknesses and the most cost-effective way to fix them. The first example concerns the heat shield of the space shuttle orbiter and shows the relative risk contribution of the tiles in different areas of the orbiter's surface. The second application is to patient risk in anesthesia and demonstrates how the engineering risk analysis method can be used in the medical domain to rank the benefits of risk mitigation measures, in that case, mostly organizational. The third application is a model of seismic risk analysis and mitigation, with application to the San Francisco Bay area for the assessment of the costs and benefits of different seismic provisions of building codes. In all three cases, some aspects of the results were not intuitively obvious. The probabilistic risk analysis (PRA) method allowed identifying system weaknesses and the most cost-effective way to fix them.

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