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Managing risks, delivering benefits: the key to sustainable solutions

Judith Hackitt CBE, Health and Safety Executive Chair and President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers

University of Bath Research in the World lecture

Slide 1 - Title Slide

I always enjoy speaking to an audience which comprises a large proportion of engineers and this evening is clearly such an occasion. I am honoured to have been invited to deliver this lecture in your series entitled “Research in the World”.

You will be aware that my own discipline, like many of you, is Chemical Engineering, indeed, as you heard in the introduction I am currently President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers as well as being Chair of Great Britain’s Health and Safety Executive.

It therefore follows that the ideas and the examples I lay before you this evening will have a chemical engineering bias, but I will also endeavour to point out how some of the issues apply in other engineering disciplines. You will, I am sure, be aware that I am not an expert in the field of research so I will not be attempting to go into the detailed areas which some members of this audience are far more qualified to speak on. What I am going to talk about is the context in which we are all operating, whatever we do in our role as engineers. You can see that the title of my presentation is about managing Risk, Delivering Benefits and Sustainability.

Slide 2 - Society’s attitude to risk

Inevitably given my day job, I will focus on risk in the context of Engineering Safety. But, that said, I believe my arguments can be applied to other types of risk - even financial risk. One thing is for sure, irrespective of discipline, any journey of discovery which identifies new products, techniques and processes will involve taking risks. Why am I so sure of that? Because everything we do in our lives all of the time involves risk taking – and hopefully some  risk management which I will come on to – so it would be absurd to ignore the risks generated by and involved in the discovery and commercialisation of products and processes – in engineering or in any other discipline. The fact is though that people do.

Society’s attitude to risk is complex. Many of us have an irrational fear of flying and prefer to drive hundreds of miles in a car rather than take a plane or even a train – despite the evidence being very clear that the risks associated with driving to one’s destination are significantly higher.

Despite overwhelming evidence that smoking causes lung cancer and has many other seriously damaging health effects, there are still those who choose to smoke because they have convinced themselves that “it won’t happen to them”. Yet those same people may have given up eating beef more than 10 years ago or stopped buying beef burgers from the supermarket in response to the more recent horsemeat scandal because of concerns about the risks.

Research has already provided us with some insights into what impacts upon attitudes to risk – whether people feel a risk is imposed upon them rather than a risk they choose to take for themselves. What is also clear is that risks with which people are familiar are given less attention and do not create the same level of alarm or unease as risks associated with the new and unknown.

When catastrophic events occur, people’s awareness of risks and their consequences are significantly heightened. In the world of engineering, both in industry and academe, we have seen this in the wake of some very significant events around the world – Buncefield in 1974, Bhopal in 1985,  Piper Alpha in 1988, Texas City in 2005, Macondo in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the Nimrod disaster, the spaceship Challenger and many more.  But we also know that that heightened sense of risk does not last. It is easy to accept in a way that it fades with time but the more worrying part of this is that people fail to learn – which means that similar mistakes keep being made around the world.

Slide 3 – Challenges

I will return to my theme of risk management later, but now I want to move on to some of the challenges we face in the world of engineering. In fact, the challenges we face in engineering are the challenges of our planet.

The population currently stands at around 7 billion people and is projected to reach 9 billion in less than 40 years time – a 30 percent increase on an ecosystem that is already overloaded.

For nine billion people to stay alive they will need access to clean water, affordable food, housing, clothing, transport, healthcare and energy supplies. Most will expect to have access to communications and entertainment – they will want what they see others have. You will note of course that all of these needs and wants are the products of engineering.

But we also have to address the challenges of climate change – even if the population were projected to remain static for the next 40 years, achieving the sort of reductions in global emissions thought necessary to prevent the worst impacts of climate change would be a challenge in itself. But achieving a 50 percent reduction in emissions becomes even harder when we are trying to do it at the same time as the population is increasing by 30 percent and they too are demanding access to the same goods and services which create emissions.

One thing that is absolutely clear is that none of this can possible be achieved without engineers. It may sound grand, but it is not an exaggeration to say that our mission is to save our planet – to deliver sustainable solutions to these massive challenges that we face. All too often our focus is exclusively on the narrow spectrum of the work that we happen to be involved in.  For me, one of the great pleasures, and privileges of being President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers has been the opportunity it provides for me to talk about the bigger picture. Sir James Dyson put it plainly when he said that “Engineers are the people who can create practical solutions to our 21st century challenges of sustainability…. And we need more of them”. Engineering has been the catalyst to industrialisation that has increased the efficiency of production and access to all manner of goods and services. I am confident that we can make the technological leaps required to meet the challenges of the future because we have shown we can do it in the past. But only if we work from the bigger picture and see the contributions which we all make – in industry, in academia and research and in the public sector - in that context.

Slide 4 –  Engineering solutions

IChemE has recently published an updated review of technical strategy and positioning. The document is called Chemical Engineering Matters and it describes the chemical engineering response which is needed to the challenges of sustainability in the 21st century. It is an important and living document which every chemical engineer – student, researcher, academic, industrialist should read. It describes the bigger picture agenda for the next 10-15 years at least and it is important that we all identify where we fit into the various vistas.

The challenges are well rehearsed and I’ve already mentioned them: Energy, Food and Nutrition, Water, Health and Well-being, Transport, Housing, Infrastructure.

But there are other cross cutting issues which run through all of these themes which we must take into account. These include safety and sustainability. It points very strongly to the need for greater levels of collaboration and interdisciplinary work. The themes and new ways of working more collaboratively need to be reflected throughout Engineering Education, Training and in assessing Research needs.

Other Engineering Institutions have similar documents. At that level we are all abundantly clear that engineers have a pivotal role to play in creating, maintaining and improving the quality of life of people in the developed and developing worlds alike.

We must also see Engineering itself in a broader context – expanding how we see the Universe of Engineering itself to take into account newer disciplines such as biotechnologies, digital technologies and we need to acknowledge that the routes to becoming a professional engineer are also becoming more diverse. The Royal Academy of Engineering already estimates that only 60 percent of current engineering professionals are educated to degree level. There are multiple pathways and routes to engineering and we must factor this into how we respond to the challenges of the present and the future.

I contend that there has never been a more exciting or more challenging time to be an engineer. But one particular dilemma we face is that we live in a society which feels very comfortable in the developed world – despite the recent global economic crisis. One of the consequences of people feeling comfortable and safe is that they become very risk averse – especially as I said earlier when they perceive that the risk is being imposed on them by someone else.

Numerous studies have made it clear that here in the UK we are facing a period for the next 10-15 years where our energy generating capacity is going to be very tight. In the event of severe weather for a prolonged period, or an interruption in supply of gas and/or other fuel which we import there is a real risk that we will see power interruptions - the lights will go out. But people’s behaviour is slow to recognise the reality of this risk – or the things that the public, Government business and of course engineers need to do to address it.

Slide 5 – Re-focus research

As I’ve said I do not intend to talk this evening about the specific areas of pure and applied technical research which may be required to address the energy challenge or indeed the many other engineering challenges which we must take on. But what I do want to talk about is the need for us to re-focus some of our research  and our teaching into what are often referred to as the “softer skills” of Engineering – by which I mean areas like systems thinking, leadership, project management, risk management, communication, how we learn, what stops us from learning. In summary we need to better understand how many aspects of human behaviour play such an important part in how engineering works and succeeds – or alternatively fails in the real world.

Last month, IChemE’s magazine, the chemical engineer (tce) ran an article about re-inventing Engineering education. The article was about New Zealand’s University of Auckland who have taken a significant step away from the purely technical focus of each branch of engineering and now recognise the value of bringing students from different engineering disciplines together to work on single projects. They have taken the lead in integrating a systems approach into the wider curriculum. They believe they are responding to a large body of opinion which is calling for the educational system for engineers to be overhauled. They see the need for the boundaries between industry and academia to be broken down to meet the world’s need for creative (yet pragmatic) solutions to ever more challenging problems. Auckland have adopted systems thinking and acquisition of professional development skills as a core part of the Engineering curriculum alongside the traditional technical disciplines and theory. These new learning experiences take up ~10percent of the total four-year undergraduate curriculum. I am well aware that there is much good work going on in a similar vein in Engineering faculties here in the UK. I choose to mention the Auckland example simply because it featured in tce.

Judging by the response in this month’s edition of tce it is clear that many others share the desire to see this approach proliferate. Many share and strongly support the view that “systems thinking is the glue that joins many disciplines together and forms a link with other professions and to the wider business context.” In other words the integrated systems thinking approach is key to providing sustainable solutions to the real problems and challenges which our planet faces.

Far from challenging or threatening traditional areas of research, I see the potential for this to open up new areas and new aspects of research to consider. Research itself can be seen in a much broader context of where it might have value or application.

Going back to my own starting point, systems thinking provides an obvious means to identify and consider the risks as well as the benefits of any new technology or process. If we educate engineers to think in systems terms they will consider the interacting pressures which  apply to people building and operating engineering solutions – safety risks, time constraints, production  pressures, opportunities to innovate.

Systems thinking requires an interdisciplinary approach, bringing different engineering disciplines together. But we also need to work with others outside of Engineering disciplines if we are to introduce and implement solutions in the timeframe that we need to achieve.

There is more research which needs to be done to understand the nature of some of the risks associated with new processes. But the ways in which engineers assess process safety risks in new and existing processes has not changed much since I started out on my career. The training courses on Hazop and Hazan, the Quantitative risk Assessment methodologies look very similar now to what they did 20 or 30 years ago. There has to be scope for new techniques and methodologies to be developed and that needs research. But we also need to research and better understand some of the key facets of human behaviours:

Slide 6 - Failure to learn lessons

I have asserted that we fail to learn lessons from the past and repeat mistakes. Let me provide you with some examples. The explosion at Flixborough in the North Ease of England occurred in 1974. Three months before the explosion occurred a crack was found in a reactor which was leaking cyclohexane. The plant was shutdown and a bypass was installed around the leaking reactor. It worked for three months until it ruptured resulting in a large leak of cyclohexane which formed a vapour cloud and exploded. Twenty eight people onsite were killed that day and 36 more suffered injuries. Fifty three members of the public outside of the site were also injured.

I graduated and joined industry just about a year after Flixborough. We all knew by then that the incident had occurred because a temporary plant modification had been made to get around a problem and that it was not properly engineered or tested before use. No one had considered that there was potential for a major disaster as a result of the change that was made. Every part of industry involving chemical engineering had learned a hard lesson from Flixborough and in 1974, everyone was saying that “it must never happen again”.

But when the fire and explosion which killed 165 people occurred on Piper Alpha in the North Sea in 1988, the subsequent investigation discovered that a platform which had originally been designed for oil production had been converted to gas production a service for which it was never intended and for which its fire and blast protection was inadequate.

Consider the case history of one particular chemical substance – a very important one when it comes to feeding seven or nine billion people – ammonium nitrate – an essential fertiliser which has played a major part in increasing food production, improving nutrition and human health. It has been manufactured on an industrial scale since 1913 – for a hundred years.

But there is also another side to its history, because ammonium nitrate is less well known for its explosive properties. In 1921 there was a massive explosion in BASF’s ammonium nitrate plant in Oppau in Germany. The blasts destroyed 700 homes and 430 people were killed. The cause was attributed to the use of blasting powder to break up piles of ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate mixture. They’d done it many times it was something they were familiar with – until the day it all went wrong.

In 1947 a freighter docked in the port of Texas City. Among its mixed cargo was  some small arms ammunition and over 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. A fire started on board the ship and spectators gathered to watch. The water around the ship began to boil and shortly thereafter the worst industrial accident in US history occurred. The entire dock complex was destroyed, 1,000 buildings were destroyed. There was a four metre high tidal wave. Every member of the local fire brigade was killed. 600 people died and 5,000 were injured.

In 2001 a huge explosion occurred at an ammonium nitrate plant in France. This time 30 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured. This was another explosion which occurred in storage.

In April of this year yet another explosion occurred at an ammonium nitrate plant this time in West, Texas. The details of this incident are still being investigated but on a recent t visit to the US I learned that the existence of the plant and the nature of what it produced was unknown to the local authorities before the incident.

Is ammonium nitrate a sustainable solution? There are no doubts about its benefits as a fertiliser – but it is only sustainable if the well known risks of the product are properly managed and people do not allow complacency and familiarity to blind them to the catastrophic consequences of getting it wrong.

Slide 7 - Chevron's Richmond Refinery, California, USA

At this point I want to take the opportunity to show you a very recent example of an incident which happened in the USA. This is a video reconstruction of the incident produced by the US Chemical Safety Board. The video is widely available on YouTube but the formal recommendations of the investigation are yet to be  fully reported. I do not want to pre-empt those findings, but I do want you to watch and consider some of the engineering issues at stake here and also the extraordinary human behaviours that you will see :


Ladies and gentlemen, I suspect we could spend the rest of the evening discussing what we have just seen. I can tell you that there is much discussion taking place in the US (again) about the merits of their compliance driven regulatory approach versus the safety case approach which we use here in the UK. I am sure there is a need for more research into what makes for effective regulation but I don’t think this is the whole answer by any means. I can see many opportunities for research: into human behaviour, management culture and engineering in this short video clip.

Slide 8 – Going forward

But in bringing this presentation to a close I want to go back to where I started. There has never been a greater need for engineers than there is today. We need to conduct research and find solutions to many of the challenges which face our world. But we have to take the rest of the population with us and we will only do that if our solutions really are solutions – they will not tolerate us making mistakes – and that means we must learn to manage the risks.

Slide 9 – Thank you and questions

Updated 2013-11-22