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Risk takes centre stage

Safety SCOSS report

A holistic approach to structural safety and the licensing of engineers are just two key recommendations in the 14th report of the Standing Committee on Structural Safety.

Dave Parker takes a closer look.

The joint ICE/IStructE Standing Committee on Structural Safety has been publishing biennial reports since it was formed in 1976. In this, its 14th report, risk management is a key theme.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 events the Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) convened a working group to review the lessons - it reported in July last year. Now SCOSS reports on other related issues, including the need for a long overdue overhaul of building regulation legislation to include 'consistent and clear emphasis on the statutory need for designers to consider the whole life span of a facility at the time of designà and clarity as to who is responsible for the structure at all times without recourse to complex case law and interpretation of specific terms.'

SCOSS points out that new Eurocode EN 1990 - Basis of Structural Design, does require designers to consider the need for adequate long term maintenance and possible changes of use during the lifespan of the structure. They will have to consider the preparation of a 'life care plan' covering inspection, maintenance and refurbishment, which could be made a statutory requirement.

Such legislation, SCOSS believes, may well depend ultimately on the formal licensing of engineers. 'The pressure is growing for transparent accountability in respect of competence, ' the report states, adding 'In the longer term it is likely that some form of licensing may apply as a means of demonstrating to others that minimum standards are met and maintained.'

But before engineers can be licensed they must be educated. There is a well documented crisis in academia, with applicant numbers for building and construction courses falling dramatically. The committee believes that 'a major effort is needed to improve matters while at least some time is left before the serious skill shortages become irretrievable. In this endeavour, industry must play a leading role.'

SCOSS also urges its sponsoring institutions to convene a forum to review the strategic issues on education raised in the report.

Over the years SCOSS has made many recommendations.

In this report it looks at the response to those 47 made over the last six years, and concludes that, 'while welcome advances have been made, relatively few of the recommendations have been comprehensively tackled.'

Two acknowledged successes have been the publications on the safety of multi-story car parks and the almost certain amendments to the disproportionate collapse requirements of the Building Regulations.

In a bid to ensure the recommendations of its latest report achieve similarly wide take-up SCOSS is putting it, and all previous reports, in full on the SCOSS website. The committee's recommendations are also directed to two specific targets.

The first of these is the 'influencers' - those in government, the institutions and academia who have a say on the drafting of standards and building regulations. For most of its existence SCOSS has generally been assumed to have mainly these influencers in mind when preparing its reports, and the reports have usually not been widely read outside this elite group.

This time around, however, SCOSS has specifically targeted 'practitioners', who actually deal with safety related issues on a daily basis and who, SCOSS hopes, will be the majority readership of this and subsequent reports.

Confidential report

Not for the first time SCOSS deals with the thorny issue of confidential reporting schemes. First raised in its 10th report in 1994, the need for a scheme similar to those now operated in the aviation, rail, marine and offshore sectors is once again endorsed and supported by the committee.

'The diversity of the construction industry is both its strength and weakness, ' says the report. 'Diversity encourages independent action and thinking - the weakness is that the essential feedback of information, not just on safety issues but also on best practice, is problematic.

Information becomes lost among the plethora of interested parties.'

Six years ago NCE campaigned for the establishment of a confidential reporting system in the construction industry in response to repeated calls for such a scheme in the 11th SCOSS report.

Proposals for a trial scheme were developed and put to the ICE and IStructE by an independent industry working party (NCE 16 March 1998). There it stalled, although the 12 month trial would have cost a mere £40,000. This time, however, SCOSS has better news to report.

Last year it produced a discussion paper on the topic. The two sponsoring institutions gave the scheme backing in principle (NCE 20 November 2002) and a source of funding is being sought for a 12 month pilot scheme.

It is to be hoped that the 15th SCOSS report will be able to give good news on this pilot - and on progress towards setting up a permanent confidential reporting system.

European concerns

SCOSS does not believe that the construction industry is ready for the impact of the final introduction of the structural Eurocodes and their supporting material codes.

Within four years use of the Eurocodes will be mandatory for all public sector work 'and are likely to be the adopted standard for all work', the report points out.

It adds: 'It is the concern of the committee that, with the exception of some specific organisations, industry at large has not yet woken up to the challengeàthere is scope for risk to structural safety if users lack the requisite competence when needed.'

The problem is compounded, SCOSS believes, by the failure to adopt the recommendations made in 2000 by a government-backed Eurocodes study group.

Specifically, this group urged the formation of a Standing Advisory Committee to oversee the introduction of the structural Eurocodes. SCOSS is 'concerned that at the time of writing no action has been taken on this point'.

Consequently, the report calls on both the ICE and IStructE to take a lead in co-ordinating a plan of action to ensure a smooth introduction of the new structural codes. And the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is again urged to back, and fund, the recommended advisory committee.

Financial problems of another kind also concern the committee.

The way the Eurocode suite of standards is structured means the cost of purchasing all the new standards needed by a typical design practice will be much more expensive than a set of the current equivalent British Standards.

SCOSS urges the British Standards Institution to look again at its pricing policy, particularly in regard to the smaller design practitioners.

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