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Grenfell and Italian road-bridge collapses highlight the failure to recognise complex management systems

23 April 2020

A recent ICE Strategy Session seminar highlighted the failures and underlying issues which emerged from the Grenfell Tower fire disaster and Italian road bridge collapses in 2018 and again in 2020.

Grenfell and Italian road-bridge collapses highlight the failure to recognise complex management systems

Dame Judith Hackitt, the Government’s Independent Advisor on Tall Building Safety told a recent ICE Strategy Session that there was a worrying amount of inertia in response to the Grenfell Tower fire safety issues which were known long before the disaster occurred.

Watch the session again in full below

Speaking during the online event, which was the first in a new series of ICE Strategy Sessions on what ICE and associated Professional Engineering Institutions should be doing to reassure the public on infrastructure safety, Dame Judith said the industry should have been motivated to manage the safety of the building and react to the concerns of its residents in an appropriate way.

“What shocked was the extent to which industry knew that something was wrong, but were not motivated to do something about it themselves,” said Dame Judith. “They saw it as somebody else’s problem."

Since the incident in 2018, there had been a loss of faith in the infrastructure professions, that now needed to regain the public’s trust. Since the publication of the building regulations and fire safety review, the Government has asked the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to establish a new building safety regulator to oversee the safe design, construction and occupation of high-risk buildings.

The HSE-managed regulator will be independent and give expert advice to local regulators, landlords and building owners, the construction and building design industry, and to residents. Dame Judith is now leading the Royal Academy of Engineering’s research into safer complex systems who are also welcoming input from engineers to their call for ideas.

Also speaking at the session was Hazel McDonald, Chief Bridge Engineer, Transport Scotland who strongly emphasized the importance of inspections which are the foundation of good asset management practice. Hazel cautioned that highway and bridge engineers in the UK should not be complacent that recent road-bridge collapses in Italy could not happen to them.

We manage vast amounts of ageing infrastructure and did not usually hear about failures unless they are large. Citing the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) report into the 2009 Stewarton rail-bridge failure, and the National Transportation Safety Board in the USA, Hazel warned that no similar body existed to disseminate lessons learnt for highways.

ICE has tasked Council member, Julie Bregulla, with addressing how ICE can reassure the public that the infrastructure they use, is safe. Providing an update on this research, Julie recognised the complex interfaces which exist for infrastructure and how the engineering presence and judgement could often be lost. What was clear from this session was that ICE had a strong role to play in being able to certify and ensure that its members remain competent throughout their career.

  • Adam Kirkup, engineering communities manager at ICE