Good evening and thank you to IMechE for inviting me here to talk to you this evening. Speaking to an audience of engineers is always an honour and a pleasure. My own background is in chemical engineering and I am proud to have become a chartered engineer and a fellow of my professional institution.
As you will all know only too well, in the 21st Century the challenges we face across the world require the very best of science, technology and engineering innovation to address them. IMechE’s own vision is that the world can be improved through engineering. I agree with that, but we must deliver that improvement to the world and deal with the challenges that lie in doing so. In Great Britain, engineering is at the heart of all our industries –technologies that support our daily lives and improve our standard of living. Engineers are vital to a sustainable future and our work must constantly evolve in order to deliver solutions that can sustain and protect our existence.
I want to talk about creating solutions that are inherently sustainable. As well as talking about some of the UK’s great engineering successes, I will also remind you of some occasions where we have got it badly wrong.
The need for solutions to present and future challenges is clear, as is the importance of responding to them quickly and effectively. Although the challenges in our rapidly developing modern world may be different to those of the past it is vitally important that we do not forsake what we have learnt – or should have learned - from previous success and also the failures that have led to terrible disasters.
Population projections suggest that by the year 2050 the human population of our planet will grow from the current seven billion to nine billion - that’s at least a 30 per cent increase on our already overloaded ecosystem.
For nine billion people to stay alive they will need access to clean water, affordable food, housing, clothing, transport, healthcare and energy supplies. We must also respond to the challenge of climate change. Even if the population were to remain the same over the next 40 years, achieving the sort of reductions in global emissions that are thought necessary to prevent climate change - 50 per cent or more - would be a challenge enough. However, with 30 per cent more people demanding goods and services which create greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge is simply huge.
But I do believe we can do it. Engineering has been a catalyst to industrialisation that increased the efficiency of production and access to all sorts of goods and services. We can make the sort of technological leaps required for the future because we have shown we can do it in the past.
The modern challenges may be different from those of the past but it is essential that we build upon the lessons learned from previous experiences and events.
The most important skill of all for the future may well be an ability to think in multiple dimensions - to develop solutions which do not solve one problem only to create a difficulty or problem elsewhere.
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 then placed at risk from flooding or harm to health as a result of development.
Modern engineers need to be capable of addressing problems in a multi-dimensional way, solving today’s problems and ensuring a ‘cradle to grave’approach.
This means developing solutions which can be built safely, operated safely and when the time comes for them to be replaced by an even better idea - the engineer must also know how it is to be decommissioned and disposed of, both safely and sustainably.
I would contend that a major part of the challenge we face today in making the case for new nuclear is a function of that lack of foresight in the past and the nuclear waste legacy which was/is much more to do with defence developments than nuclear power generation.
I realised just how fundamental the understanding of risk and safety was to engineering during my Chemical Engineering course at Imperial College in the 1970s. The exact moment was in June 1974 when a catastrophic event happened one Saturday afternoon at a chemical site at Flixborough in North Lincolnshire.
There was a large explosion at the Nypro site. Twenty eight workers were killed in the explosion and a further 36 suffered injuries. There were a further 53 reported injuries to members of the public in the neighbourhood along with considerable damage to offsite property. There would have been many more casualties had this incident occurred on a weekday rather than a weekend.
Three months before the explosion, a crack had been discovered in one of a series of reactors in the process which was leaking cyclohexane. After shutting down to investigate the decision had been taken to remove the leaking reactor and to install a bypass. On that afternoon in 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:
When I graduated in 1975, my first employer - Exxon – put me 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".
Nineteen seventy four was also the year 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 various different bodies all working to different standards. Some sectors of the economy were not subject to health and safety regulation at all.
The 1974 Act changed all that. It put into place a framework of regulation which placed the responsibility for managing risk firmly with those that create the risk. Most of the time, this means 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 us - the engineers.
I am sure that many of you here tonight, work in sectors which HSE regulates:
Our specialist inspectors represent the broadest range of engineering disciplines - including Offshore Wells, mechanical, civil, chemical and electrical engineering.
As well as investigating the causes of incidents when things go wrong, our inspectors spend a large proportion of their time working with organisations through to prevent failure and disaster from occurring – especially in the major hazards sectors. 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 in all workplaces.
HSE’s role in new technology development is to be impartial and independent and enable technologies to be adopted safely taking account of potential risks to those who will build, operate, maintain and ultimately decommission the facilities and any risks to the public, arising from these activities at each of these stages. We are closely involved in working with industry on the introduction of emerging energy technologies, such as renewables, onshore natural gas storage, distributed generation and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
As an enabling regulator we want to see the successful implementation of this work. However, we make no apology for asking questions to ensure that risks are identified and addressed during the design and development phase.
Let's take CCS as an example. CO2 has for many years had a variety of applications in industrial processes. But CCS beings these processes together on a completely different scale to capture the CO2 from fossil fuel burning power stations and then store it permanently under the sea in deep geological formations. The method involves several 'interfaces': capture, compression, transport, intermediate storage and injection into storage all of which need further understanding. The existing regulatory framework 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. A major release of pure CO2 into the atmosphere at any point in the process would present a major hazard as an asphyxiant.
But engineers must also consider:
One simple but stark illustration of dealing with CO2 relates to escape routes for personnel on offshore platforms in the event of a CO2 release during the injection phase into deep sea storage. Traditionally, for the oil and gas sector, personnel evacuation down to sea level has been the right answer when dealing with the conventional threat of a loss of containment of oil and gas but CO2, is heavier than air and will - on a calm day - accumulate on the sea's surface rendering a marine response impossible.
We raise these issues not to 'stop the show' but to ensure the challenges are recognised and solutions are found.
This in turn enables us to play an important role in providing public reassurance that these risks in new and existing technologies are being properly controlled.
We seek to promote sensible and proportionate management and control of hazards and risks. This means regulating new technologies to the same standards as existing industries in design and construction as well as operation.
You may ask why it is such a key part of the regulator's role to remind people to think about risks. It is part of our role but I feel that this is also something that others working in industry should be doing. –We need to keep reminding because the lessons get forgotten.
History should form 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 24 years ago, 14 years after Flixborough.
Piper Alpha was a large fixed platform located in the North Sea about 190km north of Aberdeen. It was originally installed for the production of crude oil but was later converted to gas 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 Piper 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 actually 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.
But regrettably, in another way we do forget. We forget the key lessons we need to learn as engineers – and pass on to future generations.
What we actually do is reassure ourselves - that lessons have been learned, that new control systems will prevent those sequences of events from happening again. This is when complacency starts to creep in to people's thinking. With the passage of time, a number of other factors also take effect:
There is undoubted benefit in learning from others, not just your own sector or discipline. The oil and gas industry have learnt much about managing risks in challenging environments and the new energy sector can draw on these experiences. Very few issues are truly new and learning from others can mean that the next risk can be anticipated and a means to address it put in place before an incident occurs. To make this happen there needs to be strong and consistent leadership across sectors and disciplines and a willingness to learn from each other.
Engineers should strive to create inherently sustainable solutions, and to do that requires risk education to be integral to the training and development of every engineer.
Let me now refer to some of the great work that is currently taking place in this country and demonstrate how that learning and sharing can and does take place.
You will all be aware of the work that has been done developing facilities for the London 2012 Games.
In Great Britain our approach to engineering and to health and safety makes us a world leader in both fields. The design and build of the Olympic Park facilities is an exemplar project that we can all be proud of – it has also provided us case studies that all industries can learn from - not just those working in construction.
HSE committed to act as an enabling and proportionate regulator for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and over the last five years, we have been working with the key duty holders to ensure that consideration of health and safety is built into the DNA of the project throughout its phases of development.
Our strategy has been based on early intervention coupled with targeted inspection of high-risk activities, to ensure that standards are being met. We worked closely with the Olympic Delivery Authority throughout the construction project, providing advice and input to ensure that key risks were identified and robust management systems put in place.
We focused our efforts around the core agenda of leadership, competence, roles and responsibilities, and management of contractors. The ODA rose to the challenge in truly admirable fashion, and proved that ambitious, innovative, time constrained building projects can be completed on time and within budget without compromising on the health and safety of workers.
To build one of the largest construction projects in Europe, over 80 million man-hours, with fewer than 150 reportable injuries and no work-related fatalities is a remarkable achievement in which we should all take pride.
We have worked with the ODA on a series of research projects to identify and analyse the good practice and lessons learned from the construction project.
I am confident that the delivery of the Olympic Games themselves can be just as successful as the big build – especially if they learn from those who staged the spectacular Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations only a week ago.
Earlier this year I visited Scotland’s Rosyth Royal Dockyard where I saw two companies working in collaboration to assemble two of the largest warships ever built. BAe Systems and Babcock Marine set out to create a safe and efficient work culture during the build process of aircraft carriers HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales and they are unashamedly copying the good practices developed at the Olympic Park.
A cradle to grave approach is being applied to the development and build of these ships with consideration given to a variety of issues in the design and build process but also to ensuring safety of lives at sea, during the ships operational lives. The companies were also working towards optimal through-life efficiencies so that the emissions and fuel, oil and water consumption are as low as possible and at the end of the ships lives they can be decommissioned in an environmentally responsible manner.
I have spoken about the importance of risk identification in enabling new technologies to develop and thrive with acceptance by the public. I would like to talk now about the importance that risk communication plays in providing reassurance and improving public perception - I also know that this is one of the current threads running through IMechE's work.
New technology and innovations inevitably present risks and unknowns for engineers seeking solutions to problems. We have to find ways to communicate effectively - with others in the engineering world – but also with stakeholders across the whole of society.
Sadly, despite all the technological advances over many decades, scientists and engineers are regarded with suspicion and puzzlement by much of society. I believe that this is partly down to our collective failure to communicate effectively. We are good at talking to one another but not to others outside of the science and engineering discipline.
It is not good enough for us to leave the task to professional communicators. By and large the media are as guilty as anyone of creating scare stories out of science and engineering – “Frankenfoods” and “Grey goo” headlines do not bode well for a balanced informative explanation of the pros and cons of GM foods and nanomaterials!
It is for us as engineers to explain what we are doing and why; using language that is not full of technical jargon, which recognises that people may have real concerns about new technologies and that we seek to reassure them by being honest, not by patronising them or belittling their concerns.
Establishing public trust and confidence in engineering will help smooth the way for continued progression and advancement. Society’s aversion to risk increases with levels of affluence, so it follows that as the world develops we become more risk averse than previous generations. But risk and responsibility go together. If we don’t explain that risk is part of all of our lives, all of the time and that there is a risk in doing nothing as well as a risk in taking action; we will not gain support for moving forward.
I believe we need to be clear that risk management and innovation are entirely compatible. Risk elimination and innovation, however, is an oxymoron. We are all familiar with the precautionary principle. In its most generic sense we all utilise it all of the time in our daily lives – weighing up the risks of what we do or are about to do versus the benefits. But in its formal definition and subsequent application there seems to be little doubt that the precautionary principle can be a barrier to innovation.
But the basic facts are these:
Building public confidence will not come from telling people that "we know best". What will help to deliver it is:
Risk communication is also about differentiating between real risk and risk averse behaviour. We in HSE know a lot about risk averse behaviour given that we are often blamed for silly decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with the sort of risks I have been talking to you about tonight. In its first six weeks of operation our new Myth Busters Challenge Panel which I chair has rebutted more than 40 nonsensical stories about supposed risky activities which were banned in the name of health and safety.
So, I would also like to stress the importance that leadership plays in communication. We need the leaders of organisations to be champions of communicating the right messages and demonstrating the right approach. Leadership is a fundamental factor that impacts the behaviour of an organisation. If leaders are serious about managing real risk and champion a sensible and proportionate approach their behaviour will cascade down through their organisations and throughout the industries in which they work. Leaders of engineering firms – CEOs, senior managers and board members should set the tone and show leadership on important issues, including health and safety and risk communication. But, leadership does not only come from the top of the organisation. It happens and should happen at all levels, through people feeling competent and confident in what they do.
So, in summary; in today's fast moving world designing solutions that will last for many years becomes harder than ever. 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. 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.
However, as I know and as we have already seen, accidents show us when 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 learn from the past, assess and manage risks and then get on with the creative solution.
At the entrance to the underground turbine hall of Cruachan Dam, a hydro power station in Scotland, there is a plaque commemorating the lives of those who died during its construction in the 1960s. No engineering project should ever 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 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 and we have to win the hearts and minds of the sceptics and the risk averse. Arguably, there have never been more exciting or challenging times. Failure to tackle any of these challenges is not an option. But failure of the solutions we engineer to tackle them is not an option or a true solution either.