Structural failure is very rare. Most cases are down to explosion, earthquake or external impact. Very, very few structures collapse as a result of the incompetence or negligence of the civil or structural engineers responsible for their design, construction and maintenance. But, even though the risk of death from structural failure is on a par with the threat posed by disgruntled bees, public tolerance of such incidents is virtually zero.
Tragedies like the Ramsgate walkway disaster may have more public impact than non-fatal accidents, but the Heathrow Express collapse also seriously tarnished the reputation of the profession. When it was later revealed that the so-called New Austrian Tunnelling Method used at Heathrow had failed 39 times since 1973 elsewhere in the world, and that this history had never been properly recorded or analysed, it was the profession as much as those directly involved that had to carry the blame.
When New Civil Engineer began to carry reports of problems with ageing multistorey concrete carparks in 1994 it became obvious from the phone calls received that most of the engineers directly responsible for the safety of these structures were not fully informed. Few - including those working for relevant government departments - were aware of the warnings on car park safety regularly issued by SCOSS, the joint ICE/IStructE Standing Committee on Structural Safety. And while SCOSS had been informed of a number of problems with multistoreys, it had no real idea of the scale of the problem until NCE's articles encouraged previously uncommunicative engineers to come forward.
The incident served to reinforce SCOSS's repeated calls for the establishment of a confidential reporting system for the construction industry, one that would complement its own activities and encourage much more feedback on potential safety hazards. SCOSS believed that if engineers could report potential hazards in a way that involved no conflict of loyalty and no risk to their personal circumstances, they would be far more willing so to do.
Last year NCE contacted SCOSS and the institutions and offered its services to assist in taking the idea forward. A joint working party was set up, and in January this year the fruits of its labours - provisionally dubbed CROSS for Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety - were presented to the appropriate committees of the individual institutions.
From the outset NCE made it clear that its role would be confined to publicising and promoting any proposed system. Once an independent body had been formed to run the system, NCE would bow out, and its long term involvement would be no different than any other construction magazine.
SCOSS originally cited the UK Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme (better known as CHIRP) as a role model (see page 21), and several discussions were held with CHIRP during the development of the proposals. It soon became apparent that, while there were obvious differences between the construction and the air transport industries, there were many similarities, not least the obligation on professionals to discharge their duty of care to the public in a responsible manner.
This obligation can sometimes clash with loyalty to one's colleagues and employers (see page 21). A confidential reporting service could offer a simple and ethical solution to such moral dilemmas.
It was relatively easy for the working party to agree on how such a system should operate in principle, and what should be done to ensure the confidentiality of the scheme (see box, right).
Those wishing to report a particular incident would have to do so in writing, giving contact details. Reports would be seen only by the director of the scheme, who would be an eminent, experienced civil or structural engineer. The director would not be based in either of the institutions nor in a government department.
After considering the report, and possibly discussing it with its author, the director would then remove all details that would identify the author, the employing organisation, the client or the project. The original would then be destroyed.
Only the de-identified report would be kept on file, with copies passed to the advisory committee.
Every quarter, the director and the advisory committee would select the most relevant reports for publication in a newsletter that would be sent to all members of both institutions. The advisory committee would also liaise closely with the relevant committees responsible for codes and standards.
Without such a scheme, discussion of such issues as alkali-silica reactivity, high alumina cement and, much more recently, accelerated low water corrosion, could be restricted by the lack of information on exactly how widespread such problems are.
There are many questions still to be answered and details to be agreed. Such a scheme would not be cost-free, and it is always difficult to assess the value of safety measures in practice. What the institutions need first is feedback from the profession about these proposals and if it would use the proposed scheme.
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