LEADING ACCIDENT investigator David Shillito gave his presidential address to the UK chapter of the Conseil National des Ingenieurs et des Scientifiues de France at the ICE last Monday.
Shillito told the audience that a culture of secrecy among politicians, operators, insurers and the police was preventing the engineering industry from learning from disasters (News last week).
He said that depending on the nature of the disaster, politicians or clients may not want to reveal its true causes. A turning point in the ways companies respond to disasters, said Shillito, came in the 1980s when human error became recognised as a cause of accidents.
Previously investigations had focused on purely technical explanations. This shift meant that accidents resulting from management failings were liable to higher nes and compensation claims.
One such case examining management failings was investigated by Shillito. He was called in to look at a methane explosion that killed 10 people at a pump house on the River LuneWyre water transfer scheme near Lancaster in May 1984 (NCE 31 May 1984).
The prime cause of the disaster, which also left 32 people seriously injured, was the deliberate venting of all air accumulations in the 6.6km Wyresdale tunnel directly into the water valve house at Abbeystead. This meant that any gas occurring in the system was released there too.
It only needed a small quantity of methane to cause the blast, which was probably triggered by a cigarette. It lifted reinforced concrete roof beams that crashed down, breaking and falling onto the crowd below.
The victims were local people who had been invited by North West Water to see the pumping station in action.