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The profession is at risk

Comment

Rushing in a new corporate manslaughter law - which everyone expects following the verdict of the Hatfield trial (see page 14) - is not the way to protect the public from future train crashes or engineering failures.

The real world just does not work that way.

Anyone who seriously believes that hanging the threat of imprisonment and career destruction over every professional engineer's head will suddenly and dramatically end accidents clearly knows little about the motivations that drive our profession.

It goes without saying that the jury's decision last week to find all five engineers in the Hatfield rail crash trial not guilty of health and safety breaches was absolutely right. The crazy and disgraceful thing was that it took so long to reach this obvious conclusion.

As I said in July 2003 and again in February this year, the whole prosecution and Old Bailey trial was 'a dark day for engineering'. The recent acquittals and early collapse of manslaughter charges represent a chink of light, but it would appear that this expensive charade has not dampened the enthusiasm for heads on sticks.

And why would it be dampened- After all, we now live in a society that increasingly demands - and is told and encouraged by the media to demand - someone to blame.

Rightly or wrongly, it has become a virtual right to be given not just a company, but a name and a face against which to attach responsibility for fate.

Which politician would stand in the way of such a populist concept?

By all accounts the proposed corporate manslaughter legislation, for all its lofty and laudable intent, will serve only to drive this blame culture. While aiming to hold to account those most able to influence company policy, it is clear that it is the middle managers and foot soldiers - the professional engineers - that will provide the meat of the investigations and prosecutions.

The consequences are dire.

To hear the Institution of Civil Engineers warning about an increased fear of prosecution possibly reducing innovation and limiting the use of engineering judgement is a worry.

Yet for it to talk about high flyers being deterred from seeking positions of responsibility is even more alarming.

Allowing either of these two issues to materialise will be a disaster and tantamount to the destruction of the profession. At best it will constitute a serious handicap for this nation's ability to develop.

We cannot allow it to happen.

As professional engineers we must of course take our responsibility for protecting public lives very seriously and take all reasonable and sensible steps to make it happen. But we must be allowed to do so without having to constantly look over our shoulders for the threat of potential prosecution.

The Hatfi ld rail crash was a tragedy and it rightly caused a revolution in the way the rail industry conducts itself. The railways are now safer because engineers and engineering have been given centre stage and money has been made available to ensure that this important part of the nation's infrastructure is looked after.

As I said back in February, even if similar improvements could be achieved using lawyers, the threat of legal proceedings and the removal of risk through over-cautious design without innovation or engineering judgement - that is not the kind of world I want to work in.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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