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Comment | Learning our lessons

The most important thing of all is to never stop having an enquiring mind.” So concludes the ICE’s new President, Robert Mair, in this month’s New Civil Engineer. Mair has devoted his life’s work to expanding engineering knowledge in areas where risk is most prevalent, with tunneling in soft ground his particular specialty.

This important message cuts to the core of this month’s theme: Learning from Failure. No-one likes to dwell on things when they go wrong, particularly when, because of the nature of what civil engineers do, the stakes are so high. In its extreme, parts of infrastructure collapsing, either in construction or in use, often has a bad ending.

Major failures are now rare, at least in the UK. That is due to decades of improvements to working practices, design approaches and project management. Standards – whether people like them or not – are there for a reason and, in the UK, are, rightly, hard to circumnavigate or change without good reason.

But things do still go wrong. And it is a duty of the engineer to understand why, learn from it, and share those lessons. It’s actually implicit in the ICE’s Code of Professional Conduct that all members “give full regard for the public interest, particularly in relation to matters of health and safety” and give “all reasonable assistance to further the education, training and continuing professional development of others”.

No-one likes to dwell on things when they go wrong, particularly when, because of the nature of what civil engineers do, the stakes are so high

So just how good are we as an industry at sharing and learning when things go wrong? There are examples where investigators offer immunity from prosecution, where appropriate, which can lead to more open and full investigations of the real causes of failures.

The understandable public outcry and desire to see someone held to account post-Grenfell is clear evidence of how such an approach would be hard to deliver today. The Hatfield rail crash that killed four proved the same. Only the final of the various Health & Safety Executive reports into the crash, published in 2006 (three years after the legal proceedings and six years after the tragedy), recognised manual track inspection failures as the prima facie cause of the disaster. These facts had not been available to industry until then.

Screen shot 2017 11 09 at 16.26.38

Screen shot 2017 11 09 at 16.26.38

This is clearly difficult ground, and so it is to the ICE’s credit that it has investigated, post-Grenfell, whether the infrastructure world is in imminent danger of a major failure along the lines of that terrible tower blaze.

The answer, we discover this month in its interim report, is that the likelihood is relatively low – but not low enough. So there is cause for further investigation and work around three key areas: competence, governance and, yes, lesson sharing.

It is the latter that this issue explores.

We have two great examples of infrastructure projects that failed recently –the Oroville Spillway and the Eindhoven airport Car Park – but where those involved have openly shared the lessons to be learned. Interestingly, neither of them were in the UK. Would these lessons have been shared if they were?

One way lessons are shared in the UK is through the New Civil Engineer-backed Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety (Cross) scheme. It is highlighted in the ICE’s report as a scheme that perhaps could and should be expanded. As we report this month, it has been a success. But it also has deficiencies. Reports are anonymised and even then parties being investigated sometimes seek to restrict publication. Others are also working hard in this area, not least the Temporary Works Forum, which has just published new guidance on avoiding failure in that, most high-risk, of activities.

So, there are places to start, and the ICE is starting. What is now needed is a suitably loud response to ensure that this work develops. Over to you.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

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