10 June 2005 is a key date in the history of civil and structural engineering. It marks the first 12 month trial of the confidential reporting on structural safety scheme (CROSS) - an idea first mooted in 1994.
Engineers alarmed about safety on the projects they are working on can report faults, deficiencies and potential disasters discreetly to CROSS director Dr Alastair Soane, safe in the knowledge that they are discharging their professional obligations without putting their jobs at risk.
If the trial stimulates enough significant reports, then there is every likelihood that CROSS will continue and play a significant part in the development of design codes and building regulations. And not before time, many would say.
It was the joint ICE/IStructE Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) which first called for a confidential reporting system, in its 10th biennial report in 1994. The call continued in vain until 1997 when NCE approached the two Institutions and offered to support and facilitate the introduction of the scheme. A working party was set up, discussions were held with CROSS equivalents in air and marine transport sectors, and proposals for a £40,000 construction industry pilot programme were eventually put to both Institutions.
The IStructE said yes. The ICE demurred, and CROSS went into limbo for more than five years.
In the meantime, readership surveys carried out by NCE continued to show overwhelming support for the confidential reporting scheme concept (NCE 28 June 2001).
In 2000 the rail industry launched its own scheme - CIRAS - but this, like the aviation scheme CHIRP, concentrated more on human factors than technical problems.
The CROSS embers never dimmed completely and SCOSS rekindled the flame in 2002, putting together an alliance that included the Health & Safety Executive and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (see box).
SCOSS secretary John Carpenter says the time was right for another try. 'What CROSS was trying to achieve fitted very well with the themes of Rethinking Construction and the increasingly risk managed approach to construction.
'The fact that we got such wide backing from the public sector is confirmation of the perceived need for such a scheme.' This trial will feature all the key elements from the earlier proposals, which in turn drew heavily on the advice and experience of CHIRP and the marine equivalent MARS. Those wishing to report a matter of concern can download and complete a standard form from the CROSS website. These can then be addressed to a PO box in Wirral, where they will be seen only by Soane.
Soane will use the personal details on the form only if he feels the need to contact the reporter for more details - anonymous reports will not be considered. But the reporter's concerns will be added to the CROSS database confidentially and the original form returned.
Regular analyses of the database should identify any significant trends. SCOSS will consider the reports regularly and publish newsletters, the first of which is scheduled for November this year.
If a report brings an urgent or potentially catastrophic situation to light, Soane will alert SCOSS immediately, while at the same time urging the reporter to take the matter up with his superiors.
If it considers the report warrants action, SCOSS will in turn bring it to the attention of the institutions, government departments or other influential bodies.
'At the moment we obviously have no real idea of the nature or number of reports I will receive, but it's going to be fascinating finding out, ' Soane says. 'All our soundings suggest, however, that there is a real need for something like CROSS in the construction industry.' SCOSS member and Arup director Faith Wainwright agrees.
And she urges the industry to take maximum advantage of the pilot study. 'We need as many reports as possible, however minor the incidents they refer to may seem.
'The industry really needs a simple way for engineers to raise their concerns, and SCOSS believes CROSS is it. But if they don't respond, it will be a long time before they get the chance again.'