wollensky says

Do not stray from virtue

1 December 2005

Build a strong and sustainable business

There is a company that describes itself as an international provider of engineering services to the world's oil and gas, transport, infrastructure and industrial sectors. Its name is AMEC and every year it publishes what it calls a 'sustainability' report. As its chief executive explains in one issue, 'This report is intended to provide you with an honest and informative overview of our efforts to build a strong and sustainable business'.

He expresses pride in, among other endeavours, his company's contributions to 'many of the world's most interesting environmental projects . . . the development of some of Europe's largest planned wind energy farms . . . in addition to other renewable energy alternatives for the future'.

He claims to give top priority to increased effort in 'pursuit of our absolute goal of causing no harm to our employees or those affected by our activities'. A chapter in the body of the report is devoted to health and safety and it echoes the chief executive's claim. Its opening sentences include the declaration: It is unacceptable that anybody should die as a result of AMEC's work and we have a target of zero fatalities.

Could the corporate aim have been at all otherwise, qualitatively or quantitatively? Assuredly the company will keep it up. Er, I mean, sustain it.

They read the runes by starlight

Personnel selectors, even in our industry, are too often tempted to resort to black arts. Calibrators of candidates are, after all, to some extent trying to predict the future: and we know that forecasting, whether in relation to technology, markets or anything else, is a congeries of black arts, especially when computerised.

Among the superstition-based dark practices of people-picking people, it is amazing (if the practitioners are in science-related industry or commerce) to find, not only studies of handwriting, physiological characteristics and the like, but also dabblings in such ancient crafts as divination and astrology.

Reliance on astrology by senior politicians does not come as much of a surprise to any rational observer of somewhat irrational society. But faith in horoscopes is a little disconcerting when it helps (as I have been told, perhaps mischievously, that it occasionally does) to guide decision between rival applicants for managerial posts in power stations.

A relevant fact is that X-ray telescopy reveals constellations in guises quite different from those made familiar by optical telescopy or naked sight. So much for astrology, we may snort. A believer, on the other hand, might affirm that 'truer' predictions are made possible by the additional, albeit complicating, X-ray data.

I just hope that the selection board does not fall for any of this when it makes appointments at any power plant near you or me.

Don't let overhead lines disappear

In societies sensitive to that sort of thing, scenic beauty is a major environmental issue and complaints swell about the visual offence given by overhead power lines. Protests mount, too, over the menace that the lines present to birds. In caring societies concern goes even further and is extended, for example, to farm workers.

Britain is a case in point. The country's Health and Safety Executive, a substantial official body, has been campaigning to alert rural workers and agricultural students to the dangers. On average, states the Executive, two people are killed every year because they have not understood that tall machinery – combines, tipping trailers, irrigation pipes and so forth – can get fatally near to high-voltage power lines.

The head of the Executive's agricultural safety section, Frank Perkins, has spelt out the problem. Here are his words. 'If a piece of equipment gets too close or comes into contact with an overhead line, the electricity will be conducted and it can pass through anyone who is on the equipment or touching it. A jet of water, liquid slurry or a fishing rod can also cause a discharge of electricity and a high risk of a fatal or severe shock.'

An explanation that Perkins has added to his warning will, however, possibly surprise those of us who have suffered over-exposure to protesters. ‘One of the biggest problems’, said Perkins, ‘is that people just don't notice overhead power lines. Lines which are obvious can blend in to the scenery . . .’. Some unfeeling philistines among power folk might mutter under their breaths a sneaking wish that all scenic beauty lovers could be immunised likewise.

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