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612 Number of near misses and the regulatory regime

Report ID: 612

Published: Newsletter No 45 - January 2017

Report Overview

A reporter is concerned about the number of investigations on which he is working, or of which he is aware, but most cannot be reported to CROSS because of legal or insurance constraints. He sees an increasing number of actual failures, including collapses, and an increasing number of near misses.

Report Content

A reporter is concerned about the number of investigations on which he is working, or of which he is aware, but most cannot be reported to CROSS because of legal or insurance constraints. He sees an increasing number of actual failures, including collapses, and an increasing number of near misses. In two relatively recent cases where steel frames have collapsed when almost complete the events have taken place when people were not in the vicinity, but had the structures been in use there could have been multiple fatalities. He has also come across serious deficiencies in the design and detailing of reinforced concrete frames. He believes that some structures are so badly designed and constructed that they are doomed from the start. Another concern is about the occurrence of systemic collapses or near misses due to multiple cases of similarly defective designs not being recognised.

There are several causes, in his view, including:

  • The lack of checking or reviews being carried out by local authorities or by independent inspectors
  • Giving Building Regulations approval without even asking for calculations
  • Shortage of building control staff
  • Limited resources within HSE
  • Contractors and clients picking the engineer who offers the lowest fee
  • Structures that are designed by unsupervised graduates who are so reliant on their computer programmes that they have no idea what they are doing
  • Steelwork drawings issued by structural engineers should check the adequacy of the fabricators’ connection designs but in practice do not
  • Safety-critical information is not communicated, instructions are routinely ignored and practically nothing is checked on site

He has the view that there may be a catastrophic collapse in the UK, causing fatalities, which will result in an enquiry and a public call for more accountability. There should, he believes, be a better regulatory process for the reporting of serious concerns and near misses so that action can be taken. The CROSS system works well so far as it goes, but the Newsletters are probably only read by the “good guys” and not those who are designing or constructing badly. There should a tougher regime within the regulatory system including local authorities, private inspectors, and the HSE along with better education and training.

Comments

This echoes themes that have recurred time and time again within SCOSS/CROSS circles.  There are many real disasters which kill and maim and many more near misses all of which cause immense distress and cost huge amounts of money. The difference between a catastrophe and a near miss can be wafer thin and depends whether there are people in the vicinity at the time of a collapse. Many in the industry are similarly concerned about the potential outcomes of weaknesses in conceptual modelling, design, communication, fabrication, construction and checking processes.  Improvements need to be made to the standards of design and construction. Unfortunately, those who most need to be aware of the risks involved are probably least likely to concern themselves with reports such as this.  Perhaps there should be a more formal regulatory process in place for reporting concerns, rather than the voluntary CROSS scheme?

There should certainly be better measures to give the younger generation a full appreciation of the skills involved in conceptual design, sense checking of computer outputs and reviewing of fabrication drawings. Of course, responsibility of the adequacy of design lies with the designer, and Building Control should not be relied upon as a means of checking. That said, Building Control should satisfy themselves, having taken reasonable steps in that regard, that Part A has been satisfied. This does not necessarily involve checking calculations, but for anything but the simplest structure should involve as a minimum reviewing the overall design philosophy and the design of critical elements.

So far as HSE are concerned they are working positively with the design community on education about CDM.  In addition, CIC is doing work to look at how well new graduates are equipped to discharge CDM duties, and to support universities with better or more consistent course content where there are gaps. With respect to the call for a stronger regulatory regime, HSE cannot get involved in approving or signing off in some way design of buildings/structures – that is a matter for other regulators. However, RIDDOR does require reporting of structural collapses associated with construction/demolition. The most important contribution that structural engineers can make to safety is to do all they can to make sure that the structures they design will not fall down. 

The legal and insurance constraints that the reporter refers to are barriers to the industry learning lessons, through schemes such as CROSS. There is certainly the possibility of another mega failure that will serve as a wake-up call. But that will be too late for those involved.

With reference to CROSS Newsletter No 45 a correspondent was a little surprised that the commentary after the report 612 didn’t mention SER (Structural Engineers Registration) and the benefit that brings to design assurance  (This sytem operates only in Scotland at present). Perhaps the next report could back refer.  The points made are very relevant, as are the post report discussion, just the missing SER link!


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