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Engineers fall victim to blame culture

Monday this week was a dark day for engineering.

Six railway engineers - among them chartered professionals - stood in the dock at Hertfordshire Magistrates Court Crown to face manslaughter charges levelled against them for their role in the Hatfield rail crash of October 2000.

That they were there simply highlights the absurdity of society's ever-increasing desire 'to see someone pay'. It highlights the growing trend by the public and the media to look for someone to blame and make an example of them.

And it highlights the State's willingness to pander to this stomach-churning blood-lust.

Every day on the railways there are engineers of all ages and disciplines making decisions. Some of these decisions are easy, routine and unambiguous. Others are more difficult and require more analysis.

Regardless of the scale of decision, at every point along the way risks are being assessed, consequences of actions thought through and the appropriate steps taken to manage the outcomes.

That is what engineers do.

We do it on the roads. We do it in power stations. We do it on coastal defence and flood prevention work. We do it at water treatment plants. We do it at airports. We do it when constructing tunnels and when maintaining hospitals.

Put simply, we provide the public with predictable outcomes to the highly complex systems that enable modern life to function.

And we do it very well.

Perhaps too well. The fact is that the public now has little comprehension of just how complex and 'risky' these taken-for-granted niceties remain.

It is right that we have worked hard to make life safer.

Certainly we should never underplay our responsibilities to the public to ensure that this is continued and constantly improved. If we neglect these duties then the Health & Safety at Work Act is there to censure.

But we cannot completely sanitise everything. Life would be very difficult without an element of risk. Regardless of engineering skill and modern technology, it is still inherently risky to take a train, drive a car or walk down the road.

This fact has to be accepted.

And it has to be accepted that if engineers are prosecuted every time something goes wrong in our complex world, we risk seeing the railways shut, the roads closed, aircraft grounded, power stations switched off, hospitals and schools locked up and water treatment works abandoned.

Without engineers the infrastructure of our lives would soon fall apart.

Certainly risks associated with our built environment must be properly identified and managed and negligent failure by a company or individual responsible for managing this process must be punished. And if this action prompts vital public or private money to be invested to help manage these risks, then so be it.

But throwing the book at engineers for the sake of a scalp is not the way forward.

It will destroy the profession and with it society.

Antony Oliver is editor of New Civil Engineer

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