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Ghosts of failure should haunt us still

How can future structural engineering failures be avoided?

Few structures fall down in the UK but when they do the consequences and ramifications are huge. 'Avoid the complacency which leads to tragedy,' is the central theme of the Standing Committee on Structural Safety's 12th bi-annual report published this week.

SCOSS has this year reminded the profession that while techniques and technologies evolve, risk of disaster is ever present and, if anything, is increasing.

'The climate of increasing commercial competition and drive for efficiency may lead to reduced emphasis on safety requirements,' says the report. 'Consequently professional engineers are under pressure to identify and quantify existing margins of safety and to reduce them. While such approaches may be reasonable it is important to proceed with great care.'

SCOSS believes it is vital to remove the 'inadequacies and confusion' from the engineer's main tools - the codes of practice and the management systems employed.

'Organisations and individuals have become more intent on specifically defining the boundaries of their responsibilities and denying any role in areas they believe to be outside those boundaries,' says SCOSS. 'The concept of collective responsibility for safety among groups of organisations is now largely in the 'back of the mind'.'

Events like the 1994 Ramsgate walkway tragedy collapse, 1997 Piper's Row car park collapse, and the tunnel collapse at Heathrow, all contain valuable lessons. All too often these are forgotten or ignored.

'There is a natural, but not inevitable, tendency among engineers towards collective amnesia concerning previous structural failures and the lessons to be learned from them. This process occurs as older engineers retire and their places are taken by younger ones,' says the report.

SCOSS is very concerned about the growth in the sheer volume of guidance notes and non-British Standard Institute codes of practice in use in the UK.

'The Institutions of Civil Engineers and of Structural Engineers and the British Standards Institute should review the whole production and writing process of

codes, including the

Structural Eurocodes,' says SCOSS.

A new streamlined policy on codes must be defined and vigorously implemented to reduce confusion and keep pace with technological change.

However, SCOSS notes the potential difficulties with the current drafting and revision process which is done on a largely voluntary basis. This system must change as 'it is not meeting the requirements of professional engineers and their clients'.

In the demanding commercial environment where engineering professionals work, risk management is now a fundamental tool.

The report calls for guidance to be prepared for the assessment of hazards affecting structural safety as part of an 'explicit risk management process starting at the design stage of projects. The regulatory requirements for risk management should be clarified by the relevant government departments,' the report adds.

The logical extension to this is the introduction of mandatory inspections of structures as part of the risk management process.

And by having a formal system, mandatory or otherwise, of identifying the possible weaknesses in any structure or system, the likelihood of complacency setting in must go down and with it, SCOSS predicts, the likelihood of structures falling down.

antonyo@construct.emap.co.uk

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