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Why civil engineers should feel a 'chronic uneasiness' about their work

29 April 2020

Complacency, short-cutting, blame-shifting and 'group-think' have all been factors in recent infrastructure failures around the world. Following last week’s inaugural ICE Strategy Session, Mark Hansford reflects on the lessons for civil engineers.

Why civil engineers should feel a 'chronic uneasiness' about their work
What lessons can civil engineers learn from recent infrastructure disasters?

Do you feel a “chronic uneasiness” about your work? If not, you should. That’s according to Dame Judith Hackitt speaking at the first ICE Strategy Session, 'Reassuring the public that infrastructure is safe', streamed live online last week. If you missed it, watch it below. It is powerful stuff from three brilliant speakers.

Brought in by government to chair an Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety in the wake of the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people, Hackitt’s review is now resulting in widespread reforms to building regulations for high rise apartment blocks. But she said the impact of Grenfell needed to be felt wider and deeper.

Reflecting also on other recent infrastructure failures worldwide, including 2018’s collapses of the under-construction Florida International University Bridge in the USA and the poorly-maintained Polcevera viaduct in Italy, Hackitt said in all cases there was a demonstrable “lack of accountability” representative of a “broken system” and a culture that encourages taking short cuts and “passing the blame”.

NTSB associates observe the damage caused by the pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida University.
NTSB associates observe the damage caused by the pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida University.

Engineering ethics, ultimately, is the root of Hackitt’s challenge to the profession. “As engineers we have a duty of care to the employees carrying out the work but also to the public who will be living and using our houses, and infrastructure for years to come,” Hackitt said.

“The whole point of engineers is to provide solutions to benefit society. That is why we all chose to be engineers in the first place. We can only gain public trust if we are humble enough to learn from our mistakes and we create an environment where we consider what can go wrong."

“We must move from a culture where we say, ‘it is not my problem’, to a state of chronic uneasiness that makes us extremely mindful of how to work safely.”

Hackitt’s comments are an echo of what has been demonstrated at the Grenfell Inquiry thus far. Inquiry chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick slammed contractors, architects and engineers after following their opening statements after they all pointed the blame at each other.

They also echo the comments of US National Transportation Safety Board vice chair, Bruce Landsberg, in the final report of his organisation’s investigation into the FIU disaster. It’s essential reading.

As Landsberg reflects, such a bridge-building disaster should have been incomprehensible in today’s technical world. Yet it happened. Why? The investigation clearly highlighted basic design flaws and a complete lack of oversight by every single party that had responsibility to either identify the design errors or stop work and call for a safety stand-down, once it was clear that there was a massive internal failure.

Basic design flaws were identified in the aftermath of the Florida University bridge collapse.
Basic design flaws were identified in the aftermath of the Florida University bridge collapse.

Landsberg suggests the project team became a victim of what has been described in management training circles as “Group Think.” Strong and confident personalities persuade everyone that everything will be OK. Despite misgivings and technical expertise that advise against such action, the team moves forward as a group.

Council member Julie Bregulla has been tasked with addressing how ICE can reassure the public that the infrastructure they use, is safe.

The work builds on the In Plain Sight report and will consider ICE’s processes and how they allow the Institution to certify and ensure that its members remain competent throughout their careers. It will also consider the role of watchdogs and investigators. The US has Landsberg’s NTSB which does an exceptional job investigating – without seeking to apportion blame – all transportation accidents such that lessons can be learned.

In the UK, the landscape is different, and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch is there to tackle rail accidents, yet there is no equivalent for highways incidents. Transport Scotland’s chief bridge engineer Hazel McDonald, speaking at the Strategy Session, drew that comparison with the USA and urged that it be looked at. This will be considered as part of ICE’s work.

McDonald also highlighted a possible over-reliance on technology. In Florida, no action was taken despite the visual evidence of severe cracking because the computer model was not predicting a failure. A future ICE Strategy Sessions online event next month will debate the extent to which over-reliance is placed on computer-generated solutions.

Julie Bregulla’s work will fundamentally study culture – and how professionals with the right ethical approach can form collaborative teams that avoid getting sucked into Landsberg’s dreaded 'group think'.

  • Mark Hansford, director of engineering knowledge at Institution of Civil Engineers