Last week, the NCE 500 overwhelmingly backed the introduction of a confidential reporting system on structural safety similar to that first talked about by safety experts in 1994.
The institutions of civil and structural engineers' Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) first brought attention to the need for a confidential system for reporting potentially dangerous incidents in its 10th report in 1994.
Seven years later in its 13th biennial report, SCOSS - also backed by the Health & Safety Executive - reiterates that it remains 'attracted by proposals' for such a scheme and has launched a new consultation to gauge industry views.
SCOSS has always maintained that a confidential scheme would encourage engineers to report potential safety hazards and 'near-misses'. This, it argues, would enable engineers to discharge their duty to the industry and the public, without compromising employer or client relationships .
Should an engineer be put in the rare position of being instructed to ignore an obvious safety hazard by a superior, they would have a discreet and ethical means to carry out professional obligations without putting their jobs at risk.
And, of course, more reports would mean more data and a better chance of picking up trends and potential problems in time to prevent serious accidents.
Yet despite wide support within the industry for such a scheme nothing has happened - so far at least.
This is not for want of effort and enthusiasm. Three years ago a proposal for a one year trial of a confidential reporting scheme for civil and structural engineers was put to the two learned institutions. Drawn up by a joint ICE/IStructE working party, and backed by publicity through NCE (NCE 9/16 April), the proposal was designed to establish the need for such a system, and to test out the proposed operational procedures. It would have cost around £40,000.
While the council of IStructE accepted the proposal and promised funding, the ICE remained unconvinced. The then director general Roger Dobson maintained that the ICE already offered such a service to its members. And, said the ICE, the working party had failed to demonstrate the need for such a scheme.
Ironically, once the ICE had refused to fund the pilot, there was little chance of this need ever being found.
But there was a weight of anecdotal evidence in 1998 following publicity of the scheme which NCE provisionally dubbed CROSS - confidential reporting on structural safety (see box). Several eminent members of the profession added their personal endorsements to the concept and a detailed survey allowed readers to give their views.
Then, as last week, the support from NCE readers was overwhelmingly behind CROSS.
But what was unexpected was the number of respondents who had been 'discouraged' from reporting safety hazards to an outside body by a superior - 24%.
And a shocking 32% said they knew of instances where internal warning of inadequate structural safety had been ignored.
These results came in the wake of the 1994 Ramsgate walkway tragedy and Heathrow Express collapse, and the 1997 partial collapse of an ageing multi-storey carpark in Wolverhampton. SCOSS had been warning of the risks associated with this generation of concrete carparks for some time, but it took the Wolverhampton collapse to spur the Health & Safety Executive into action (NCE 3 December 1998).
That was then.
Since 1998 there have been no serious structural failures in the UK but rail disasters have dominated the headlines.
Although SCOSS's proposals were limited to matters of structural safety, there is no reason why rail safety should not be included in a confidential reporting system.
Would a concerned of frustrated rail engineer have reported the lack of action on the notorious Signal 109 at Paddington before tragedy struck?
Would more information on the gauge corner cracking and its level of incidence have brought the problem to light early enough to prevent Hatfield?
Would a catalogue of reports on sections of mainline railway exposed to potential car crashes have prevented the Selby train crash?
And less dramatic, but just as technically important, the wobbling Millennium Bridge in London might just have been avoided if something like CROSS had been reporting earlier cases of synchronous lateral excitation.
At the moment NCE regularly passes on details to the HSE of potentially dangerous rail overbridges, structural faults or reports sent in by readers. But this is no substitute for a proper confidential reporting system.
Certainly there are very good systems for learning from the incidents long after they have passed. But as SCOSS highlights in its latest report, there is a difference between such systems and a confidential reporting scheme.
'Civil and structural engineers may have concerns about ongoing, live problems, ' says SCOSS. 'At present the Committee itself welcomes warnings relating to long term dangers.
CROSS: the history
Following the 11th SCOSS report in 1997, with its repeated plea for a confidential reporting system, NCE approached SCOSS and the institutions and offered to help get just such a system off the ground by facilitating a working party This group was independent of SCOSS, and included a representative of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Much discussion was devoted to the scope of any scheme: should it include demolition, for example, or dealing with contaminated land; should it be open to all those working in the construction industry or just to members of the two sponsoring institutions?
There was also some uneasiness over the possibility that any scheme might be seen as a 'whistleblower's charter' by the employer groups in particular.
All agreed that a confidential reporting scheme, whatever its scope, would only work with the support of the institutions, the HSE, and client and employer groups. However, the biggest unknown was what reports a confidential scheme would receive.
Discussions were held with the director of CHIRP, the long established (and expensive) confidential reporting scheme that covers the airline industry, and with MARS, the Marine Accident Reporting Service.
MARS was seen as a more suitable model for CROSS, in the short term at least, and the proposal for a 12 month pilot had many echoes of the minimalist MARS scheme.
Two key principles link all confidential reporting schemes now in existence. Anonymous reports would not be accepted but a 'confidential barrier' would ensure that any details passed onto an advisory committee would be 'disidentified'. All contact details would be known only to an independent scheme director and any information that would enable the location or identity of the structure or company involved to be identified would be deleted.
And, like most such schemes, the pilot would have involved the regular dissemination of information, in this case via the magazines Civil Engineering and Structural Engineer.
CROSS in brief
Objectives Improve feedback on structural problems Establish a system that will be acceptable to both management and employees Gain public backing and support from the institutions, government and the HSE Key principles Open only to chartered civil and structural engineers Confidential but not anonymous Confined to matters affecting the safety of permanent and temporary structures Independent of the institutions and government Quarterly reports circulated to all members Operating structure A director, who will be the only one to know the identities of those using the scheme An advisory committee, to whom the director will pass 'disidentified' reports A management committee, to whom the director will be responsible