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Code breakers

The introduction of Eurocodes, an increasingly global workforce and a lack of recognition from the civil engineering community means that the two industry bodies dedicated to promoting structural safety have a lot of work to do. Declan Lynch talks to Scoss chair John Carpenter and Cross secretary Alistair Soane.


Scoss was set up by the ICE and IstructE in 1976 following a series of high profile accidents in the construction phase. It draws on experience from the industry to identify risks and then seeks changes of practice to maintain safety.

Current chair John Carpenter believes Scoss’ work is essential in order to learn lessons from the past and wants a more holistic approach to risk management to help improve structural safety.

“Construction sites are run by planners rather than engineers and we’ve lost that supervision”

John Carpenter, Scoss


“All engineers have to manage risk, it takes precedence over everything else,” says Carpenter. “Risk could relate to structural, environmental, economic, and occupational; Scoss is concerned with structural but they are all important.”

Carpenter backs a risk management approach - consciously going through the key things with a good facilitator to analyse the critical points - rather than getting straight into design and then looking at health and safety separately.

“At the start of the project we need to brainstorm ideas for anything that may cause any problems.

This could range from the lead designer absent on sick leave to a client being unable to pay. From there we should move onto the more conventional safety related issues such as contaminated land.”

“I get frustrated with attitudes to the health and safety phrase; when it’s mentioned people eyes just glaze over.”

Code focus to risk focus

Carpenter believes that engineers should change from a code-focused design to a risk-focused design. An engineer’s responsibility is not discharged with meeting the code, it is managing risk, he says.

Scoss is sponsored by the ICE, the IStructE and the HSE, a “powerful trio” that consists of a 14-person committee, which includes academics, consultants, and contractors. Finally, there is the chair, John Carpenter.
Scoss gathers information from industry and through its reporting service Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety (Cross). It produces bulletins, alerts and topic papers to draw attention to Scoss’ recommendations. In the past Scoss has issued alerts about concrete fixings and stadia crash barriers.

In an effort to develop an easier way to look at structural failures Scoss has developed the 3Ps - people, product and process - to analyse structural failures. All failures can be attributed to one or more of these three areas and Carpenter believes it’s been successful in getting simple messages across to employers.

“If you look at classic failures, the cause will be either people, where issues such as lack of training could be a problem; product, the material may have been under strength; or process, the design may not suitable,” he says.

An area of concern on the horizon is the implementation of Eurocodes.

“Our concern is more with the smaller firms who suddenly get a job where Eurocodes are requested - they may not have the in-house skills and many older engineers will hope to see their time out on British Standards.”

Carpenter also has concerns about the procurement process, which is based on commercial expediency instead of risk. “Construction sites are run by planners rather than engineers, and we’ve lost that supervision,” he says.

Scoss has been around for 34 years but it has struggled to make an impact on the broader civil engineering community.

“It’s very disappointing but it’s not for want of trying. But in the modern age I think we sometimes get overloaded with information,” he says.

Carpenter believes that integrating knowledge of Scoss’ procedure through the chartership process would help.

John Carpenter CV

2001-present Secretary, Scoss and consultancy

1972-2001 Travers Morgan (later part of Capita Symonds)

1969-1972 Freeman Fox

BSc Civil Engineering, University of Leeds


In 2005 the Standing Committee on Structural Safety embarked on a mission to improve structural safety and reduce failures.

To do this it set up the Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety service (Cross), which it hoped would highlight lessons learned and generate feedback to influence change in industry practices.

Alastair Soane is Cross’ first secretary and he has taken it from the concept stage to implementation. “I believeit’s the engineers’ responsibility to report faults, deficiencies and potential disasters to Cross,” says Soane.

“Whenever tragedy occurs the consequences are enormous whether you’re talking about the victims, their families or the companies involved.”

Engineers can report to Cross in two ways, either by post or by using an online form. Soane makes the reports anonymous, by removing references to sites and companies, and then provides commentary.

“In most cases I talk to the reporter, but I don’t intervene. Cross is a reporting service and we don’t have the power to advise,” he says.

Not all reports are published and Soane does not accept anonymous forms as he can’t verify any of the information given. Reports are largely from senior individuals in large and small firms. About half of the reports originate from the construction sector, 25% from design and 25% from operation.

Report review process

Once the reports are edited and comments added, they are reviewed in batches at quarterly committee meetings. The committee consists of 10-12 volunteers drawn from consultancies, contractors and local government and government departments, where they are all experts in their field. Cross then produces reports and quarterly newsletters based on the committee’s findings, both of which are publicly available.

The direct service has enabled Cross to identify trends and influence the industry to change. One example of this was when Cross received several reports on heavy acoustic ceiling collapses, in places such as cinemas. Concurrently the service received a number of reports on suspended ceiling collapses. These reports prompted the British Standards Institute and the British Fixing Association to look into improving their guidance and the Building Regulations Advisory Committee considered possible inclusion in future building regulations.

“This is an example of where hard evidence has been used to influence change. Engineers and companies would have known about the individual collapses but they did not realise there was a trend,” Soane says.

Cross was inspired by airline industry reporting service Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme and US Aviation Safety Reporting Service, which were hugely influential in improving airline safety and getting direct contact between the operators and the safety bodies.

“I believe it’s the engineers’ responsibility to report faults, deficiencies and potential disasters to Cross”

Alastair Soane, Cross


But Cross is finding it difficult to make a major impact on the general engineering community with a recent survey revealing that 62% of engineers were not aware of the service.

“Typically it takes 10 years for a service like this to become mature. Everyone says Cross is a good idea but there are a lot hurdles to overcome,” says Soane.

He cites various reasons for reluctance to report ­- workers’ loyalty to their firm, and a fear that the service will not be confidential, although he insists there have never been any leaks.

The service is being used more and it is receiving reports with increasing frequency, on average one per week and over 200 in all.

Cross is sponsored by the HSE, the ICE and the IStructE but is independent. Impartiality is ensured by the committee system; members do not have any vested interest in the reports.

There is international interest in the service with other countries looking to set up similar bodies and cooperate on sharing findings.


Alistair Soane CV

2005 - present Director, CROSS

2003 - present Alastair Soane Consulting

1998 - 2002 Consultant to Mott MacDonald, Consulting Engineers

1988 - 1998 Chairman and chief executive, Bingham Cotterell

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