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Complex, systemic problems need detailed, serious solutions

Just how far away are you from a catastrophic, life threatening, business wrecking incident occurring on your project?

Uncharted waters

Chances are that, working in construction, you simply don’t know for sure.

Worse still, it is almost certain that the consequences of such an event have never been really thought through; nor have the actions necessary to mitigate or control incidents such as major collapse or explosions.

However, the corporate and personal pain suffered publicly by oil giant BP following the Deepwater Horizon accident and consequent oil spill disaster across the Gulf of Mexico one year ago is a classic wake-up call.

As the report into this accident concluded, the industry and government were “woefully unprepared” for the problems that transpired; all parties lacked adequate contingency planning; no one had invested sufficiently in research to improve containment or response technology.

As was pointed out to me during last week’s seminar on the Health & Safety Executive-backed investigation by Ciria and Loughborough University into the avoidance of catastrophic incidents in construction, the Deepwater Horizon report should be compulsory reading.

Not least because it is pretty hard to suggest that UK construction industry is any better prepared than the US oil industry when it comes to major hazards.

“It is pretty hard to suggest that UK construction industry is any better prepared than the US oil industry when it comes to major hazards”

And the Ciria research bears this out. While we are really good at managing the day-to-day project risks and at setting goals for continuous health & safety improvements, we are less prepared for the more complex, systemic problems.

In short, the Deepwater Horizon accident should be a wake-up call for senior management to make doubly sure that what is happening out in the field in their name is precisely what they have signed up for in the warm, dry boardroom.

Like BP, we must develop better incident reporting and data collection surrounding “near misses” so as to boost the tracking of incidents, risk assessments and analysis.

Of course, too often we are hindered by simplistic commercial need to apportion blame. It is a point made well by the Deepwater Horizon report which draws on the words of the board that investigated the loss of the Columbia space shuttle in 1985 which noted that “complex systems almost always fail in complex ways.”

“Though it is tempting to single out one crucial misstep or point the finger at one bad actor as the cause of the
Deepwater Horizon explosion,” the report states, “any such explanation provides a dangerously incomplete picture of what happened encouraging the very kind of complacency that led to the accident in the first place.”

There is much for construction to learn about preparing to avoid major catastrophic incidents from both reports.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (1)

  • Sorry to be a pedant, but the Challenger was lost in 1986, and Columbia blew up in 2003.

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