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Comment | A week to remind engineers of their responsibility

Hillsborough Memorial

The awesome responsibility of civil engineers and civil engineering has been brought home in a sobering few days for the industry this week.

It began with the 30-year anniversary of the catastrophic nuclear incident at Chernobyl. There, work is now finally nearing completion to construct a confinement structure that will finally make the site safe.

Thirty-one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, which occurred when a systems test on reactor four went catastrophically wrong. The Chernobyl Forum predicts the eventual death toll could reach 4,000 among 590,000 people exposed to the highest levels of radiation.

While civil engineers were not to blame, it is a stark reminder of what can go wrong with civil infrastructure when not operated correctly.

Then there was the Hillsborough inquest verdict, where the jury ruled that 96 football fans were unlawfully killed 27 years ago in that fateful FA Cup semi-final. Failings all round, and most blame lies with the Police and emergency service response.

But blame was also apportioned to the civil engineering profession, with the jury ruling that Sheffield Wednesday’s then consultant engineer, Eastwood & Partners, should have done more to detect and advise on any unsafe or unsatisfactory features of the stadium.

The jury was specifically asked: “Should Eastwood & Partners have done more to detect and advise on any unsafe or unsatisfactory features of Hillsborough Stadium which caused or contributed to the disaster?” The jury gave its answer – yes – and went on to offer an explanation.

“Eastwoods did not make their own calculations when they became consultants for Sheffield Wednesday Football Club,” it said. “Therefore, the initial capacity figures and all subsequent calculations were incorrect. 

“Eastwoods failed to recalculate capacity figures each time changes were made to the terraces. Eastwoods failed to update the safety certificate after 1986. Eastwoods failed to recognise that the removal of barrier 144 and the partial removal of barrier 136 could result in a dangerous situation in the pens.”

To the firm’s credit it has responded, with managing director Philip Richardson saying his firm “fully respects” the inquest’s findings and that it intends to study them carefully, adding a full apology on behalf of the company before going on to say that no one remains at the firm with any first-hand knowledge of the stadium design decisions concerning Hillsborough in the 1980s.

“This was a terrible, tragic incident that will never be forgotten and out of the disaster there has come a legacy of improved stadium safety throughout the country,” he said. And he is, of course, correct; from an engineering point of view, the Hillsborough lessons have been well learned.

But it is good to remember what can go wrong – and quickly – when we take our eye off the ball. We have a huge responsibility to the general public.

We also have a huge responsibility towards our own people. Which brings us, sadly, to the Queensferry Crossing, where on Thursday a construction worker was tragically killed, believed to have been hit by the swinging boom of a crane.

Investigations are now underway and it is inappropriate to prejudge any findings. But the news is a poignant reminder of the importance of onsite safety and ironically came as organisations around the world marked Workers Memorial Day in memory of those who lose their lives every year in workplace accidents.

Masses of work goes into site safety every year in the construction industry in the UK, but fatal accidents do keep happening. London 2012 set a new standard for mega projects – and civils projects generally – when all construction work was completed with no construction-related deaths.

Sadly Crossrail has not managed to pick up the baton, and now neither has the Queensferry Crossing.

All three events this week just serve as a stark reminder of how awesome our responsibilities are and how quickly things can go wrong.

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