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Speech to Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bath - 2 June 2010

Judith Hackitt CBE, HSE Chair

Health and Safety: The Cradle to Grave Approach

I'm honoured to have been invited to give this lecture today. I always feel privileged to be speaking to an audience of engineers. Some of that of course may be because I share your passion for this profession. I am an engineer myself. To be precise, a chemical engineer - and take pride in having become a chartered engineer and a fellow of my professional institution.

But this is about much more than speaking to an audience of like minded individuals. Engineers are such an important part of achieving a sustainable future. Engineers transform scientific knowledge and good ideas into workable solutions - on every scale and in all walks of life, to any problem and challenges you care to name.

In the 21st Century, there can be little doubt that the challenges we face globally requires the very best of engineering knowledge and innovation to address them. Population projections continue to suggest that by 2050 - within your lifetimes [who knows, even within mine] - the population of our planet will grow from the current 6.5 billion to 9 billion, an increase of almost 50 per cent in the load on our fragile ecosystem.

To survive, all of those 9 billion people will need access to clean water, affordable food, housing, clothing, transport, healthcare and sustainable energy supplies - all the things that civil society expects and has a right to.

Coupled to this also, despite some who might try to deny it, is that at some point very soon we will need to address the biggest challenge of all: climate change.

Even if the population were to remain the same over the next 40 years, achieving the sort of reductions in global emissions which are being talked about as necessary - 50 per cent or more - would be a challenge enough. But with 50 per cent more people demanding those goods and services which create greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge becomes colossal.

To address these challenges, we need people who can think imaginatively but then have the practical nous to get things done; people like engineers.

Our forebears have been doing that for several hundred years. Humankind's timeline is punctuated by great leaps forward that are often the consequence of amazing technological advancements.

Some might even say that we've been here in the past. Certainly some parallels can be drawn with the decades shortly before the industrial revolution when, for instance, the views of respected economist and demographer, Thomas Malthus, become popular. Back then, he was forecasting that population growth would soon outstrip the world's food supply threatening a potential rise in worldwide mortality. However, his prediction failed to foresee the full effects of industrialisation that would sweep through Europe and America and how engineering would increase efficiency of production and accessibility to goods and services.

Of course, the times have changed and the challenges faced by the 21st Century engineer are not necessarily those of the past. There are certainly new skills that engineers must acquire but it's critical that these build upon the lessons learned from the wonderful triumphs and dreadful disasters that have happened before - both in equal measure.

Perhaps the most important skill of all for the future will be to think in multiple dimensions - to find solutions which do not solve one problem only to create a problem or downside in another dimension.

Generating power that creates carbon dioxide emissions is clearly not a sustainable solution. Agricultural processes which increase food production and housing which provides shelter is not sustainable if the people who reap the 'benefits' are placed at risk from flooding or harm to health as a result.

(So) We need engineers in the 21st Century who can produce multi-dimensional solutions, hence the title of this speech, which are sustainable from cradle to grave.

That means solutions which are, as far as possible, designed to be built safely, operated safely and when that solution is superseded by an even better idea - the engineer must also know how it is to be decommissioned and disposed of safely and sustainably.

When I studied to become a chemical engineer at Imperial College in the 1970s, I can pinpoint precisely the moment when I realised how fundamental the understanding of risk and safety was to engineering. It was in June 1974, by an event that happened one Saturday afternoon at a chemical site at Flixborough in North Lincolnshire.

That Saturday afternoon there was a large explosion at the Nypro site. 28 workers were killed in the explosion and a further 36 suffered injuries. The numbers of casualties would have been many more if this incident had occurred on a weekday rather than a weekend. There were a further 53 reported injuries to members of the public in the neighbourhood and there was considerable damage to offsite property.

3 months before the explosion, it had been discovered that there was a vertical crack in one of a series of reactors in the process and the crack was leaking cyclohexane. After shutting down to investigate the problem the decision had been taken to remove the leaking reactor and to install a bypass. On the afternoon of 1 June, that bypass system ruptured resulting in a large leak of cyclohexane which formed a vapour cloud and exploded. All 18 people in the control room were killed when windows shattered and the roof collapsed. Fires burned onsite for 10 days.

The subsequent investigation said the following:

(So) when I graduated from University in 1975 and joined my first employer - Exxon - I went through rigorous training in process safety management. Flixborough had been a huge wake-up call to industry and the lessons were being learned far and wide. Everyone was committed to the principle that "it must never happen again".

Something else happened in 1974 that would have a major impact as well. In 1974 the Health and Safety Executive came into existence as Great Britain's regulator for workplace health and safety.

Prior to the Health and Safety at Work Act, Britain's industrial sectors were regulated by a variety of different bodies all working to different standards. Some sectors of the economy were not subject to health and safety regulation at all.

But the 1974 Act changed all that. Putting in place a framework of regulation which has stood the test of time and is as fit for purpose today as it was then more than 35 years ago.

Why is that?

Principally, because the new law was not prescriptive. It was instead based on achieving outcomes not compliance with rigid rules and procedures. It also placed the responsibility for managing risk firmly with those that create the risk. In HSE, we call those people the duty holders. By this, most of the time, we mean the owners of the enterprise - and quite clearly in the case of new technologies and new solutions we mean those who develop and implement those solutions - and so we come back to you - the engineers.

The Health and Safety Executive is Great Britain's regulator for workplace health and safety and its mission is to prevent death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities.

We are an organisation of some 3,500 people and we regulate heath and safety in practically all workplaces throughout Great Britain. This includes:

To support these, we have our own group of specialist inspectors that represent the broadest range of engineering disciplines - such as Offshore Wells, mechanical, chemical and electrical engineers. As well as investigating the causes of incidents when things go wrong, our inspectors also spend a significant proportion of their time working with organisations through the provision of advice and guidance. The regulator and the innovators have different but closely related roles to play but the goal is the same: to enable the identification of potential risks to ensure safety in design and operation is present in all workplaces.

A current example of us doing this is the part we are playing in the introduction of emerging energy technologies, such as renewables, onshore natural gas storage, distributed generation and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). I recently spoke at and chaired a seminar that brought together many of the companies that will be involved in introducing CCS technology on an industrial scale to this country and worldwide.

The message delegates took away from that meeting. Was that the regulator wants to enable its successful implementation. (But) there are a number of things that both industry and regulator need assurances about before that can happen.

The first related to the CCS process. CO2 has for many years found itself a variety of applications in industrial processes. But never before have these processes been brought together on this scale as a continual series of processes to capture it from fossil fuel burning power stations and then store it permanently under the sea in deep geological formations. The proposed method will produce several 'interfaces': capture, compression, transport, injection and intermediate storage all of which we need to develop our understanding of further. The existing regulatory framework we use - HSWA - is sufficiently flexible to mean that it can cover the whole CCS process. But this still requires the risks to be identified and for the appropriate control and mitigatory measures to be implemented.

Although a major release of pure CO2 into the atmosphere is to be avoided at all costs because in high densities it can act as an asphyxiant. There are other factors that have to be considered as well. These include:

One simple but stark illustration of dealing with CO2 relates to escape routes for personnel on North Sea installations in the event of a CO2 release during the injection phase. Traditionally, for the oil and gas sector, down has been the right answer when dealing with the conventional threat of a loss of containment of oil and gas but what about CO2, which is heavier than air and will - on a calm day - accumulate on the sea's surface rendering a marine response impossible.

But these are not problems that will 'stop the show', solutions are available and can be implemented.

(So) Companies and individuals have not only a legal but also a moral duty to take appropriate and reasonable steps to ensure that their activities do not place workers or members of the public at serious risk. To do otherwise is not only a legal issue but in my definition is clearly not a sustainable or defensible 'solution'.

It is also part of our role to remind people of the important lessons from the past, such as Flixborough. You may ask why we need to remind them and the answer is very simple. Because the lessons are forgotten.

History needs to be a fundamental part of every engineer and manager's training. Because when we forget the lessons of the past, history has a horrible habit of repeating itself.

The Piper Alpha disaster happened almost 22 years ago, 14 years after Flixborough.

Piper Alpha was a large fixed platform located in the North Sea about 190km North of the Aberdeen coast. It was originally installed for the production of crude oil but was later converted to gas production. Because the platform was originally designed for crude oil production the location of key operations and the sighting of firewalls were built to a set of design criteria which were compromised when the platform's use changed. The Cullen inquiry into the disaster - which had a final death toll of 167 - concluded that the initial cause of the explosion and fireball which engulfed Piper Alpha had been a leak which was the result of maintenance work. The maintenance and safety procedures were found to be inadequate - as were the arrangements for refuge and evacuation of personnel and key aspects of the design of the facility were not fit for purpose.

But the safety integrity of the Pipe Alpha platform was compromised at the point where it was switched from oil to gas production. A management of change and an engineering issue - just like Flixborough.

In one sense, we don't forget about tragedies like Flixborough, Piper Alpha, Texas City, Bhopal, Hatfield, Chernobyl and the Challenger space shuttle. People who lost members of their family or workmates in these tragedies will certainly never forget them.

Regrettably, in another way we do forget. We forget the key lessons we need to learn as engineers.

That's because we reassure ourselves - that lessons have been learned, that new control systems will prevent those sequences of events from happening again. Complacency starts to creep in to people's thinking. With the passage of time, a number of other factors also take effect:

(So) it is essential that engineers create inherently sustainable solutions, and to do that requires risk education to be integral to the training and development of every engineer. Engineers need to learn from others without endangering their own health and safety or that of others so that innovation and new technology delivers real sustainable benefits.

Even in today's fast moving world, much of the hardware solutions that engineers design will last for many years. So safety in design is not just about ensuring that your project will do the job it was designed for now or even for the next 10 years. Major engineering projects have to last for decades. But in a world where priorities are constantly changing it is also inevitable that at some point in the future another engineer will come along with a bright idea on how to modify and improve what you've done. (And) that, is a good thing - continued improvement and innovation - provided that your successor understands the design principles and limitations of your design and doesn't compromise them through the modification.

Believe me, this is easier said than done in today's environment of changes in corporate ownership and outsourcing and contracting, but it is hugely important.

Following one major incident - the Hatfield Rail Disaster in 2000 - Lord Cullen the chair of the subsequent board of inquiry said: "Education of engineers should deliver professionals who understand their professional responsibilities for the safety of the public, including the need to act on safety critical defects, and who can apply the principles of risk management"

To this end HSE has itself been engaged in some important work looking at the integration of risk concepts into undergraduate engineering courses.

It may sound contradictory or incompatible to expect those charged with the task of finding and implementing solutions, to expend time and effort exploring what can go wrong.

(But) repeatedly, as I know and as we have already seen, accidents have shown that there has been a failure to: either understand how to manage risk, or to take the opportunity to do so. It is therefore essential that safety-critical professionals such as engineers are educated and encouraged to assess and manage risks ad then get on with the creative solution.

Several universities offer specialist diplomas, foundation degrees and master's degrees in occupational health and safety and risk management for major hazard industries. However, for students not wishing to specialise in these areas there is evidence that, across degree courses in the UK, the extent and content of risk education is varied, and there is the potential for it to not always be proportional to the level of risk that undergraduates could be responsible for managing in their professional working life.

Risk is part of everyday life and an essential responsibility of every practicing professional engineer, risk education needs to be integrated into students' study. More specifically, the management of risk should be viewed as a thread. Rather like the writing in a stick of rock that runs through everything a professional engineer designs and the judgments and decisions they make.

The findings of the work that HSE has been engaged in are that on graduation students should be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

On graduation, students should be able to demonstrate ability in applying knowledge of the topics to:

I am aware that Bath's undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering has for some time incorporated risk education into its course modules. I applaud that.

Being an engineer is a responsible profession. If you have chosen to be an engineer, you will be engaged in a profession which makes a difference to society in so many ways. No one wants that contribution to be forever tarnished with lives lost and harm done in the process.

In Scotland, there is a hydro power station at a place called Cruachan Dam. At the entrance to the underground turbine hall there is a plaque commemorating the lives of those lost during its construction.

No engineering project should ever have to be a memorial to those who built or operate it.

Engineering safety never stops. Plant has to be maintained, it will be modified and ultimately it has to be dismantled and disposed off when the technology is superseded.

Understanding of risk, inherent safety in design and throughout the lifecycle of any process, machine or equipment has to be part of the DNA of every engineer. Bolting it on as an afterthought is not an option - neither is leaving it to someone else to think about.

Engineers in the 21st century have challenges to face and solutions to find to some of the most difficult issues our planet has ever faced. Arguably, there have never been more exciting or challenging times. Failure to tackle them is not an option. But failure of the solutions we engineer to tackle them is not an option either.

Updated 2010-03-06