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Learning lessons

Last week in my role as President of IChemE I visited the London office of a major global engineering group. The organisation has an admirable focus on training chemical engineers of the future and I was delighted when in their opening presentation, without any prompting from me, they stated that safety was one of the organisation's core values. Core value is absolutely the right place for safety to be in any organisation. When people tell me it's their "top priority" it never quite rings true.

I spoke to an audience of about 50 engineers at all stages in their careers, all of them had enthusiasm etched on their faces, rightly engaged and excited about the prospect of a wonderful career that could see them championing top class British engineering and safety standards on projects around the world.

What great ambassadors for the UK. The chemical engineering sector in our country is internationally viewed as a centre of excellence and high quality. Companies around the globe are seeking out UK engineers to design and build their projects because they know they will get excellence.

One of our great business assets is the ability to not only export knowledge, but also to take the principles of commitment to safety overseas with us. I was inspired by the engineers I met this week, not least because I also met a group of Year 5 and 6 schoolchildren who were there in the same offices learning about what it means to be an engineer. I know that any safety messages they pick up from these people will be the right ones.

But sadly we have seen a couple of examples this week of schoolchildren being given very confusing messages about what health and safety is about.

In one story we saw new pupils to a primary school being disappointed when they were turned away on their first day at school because their parents apparently did not attend compulsory briefings about several issues including health and safety, initiated by a school governing body.

The other story reported that an 'eco-school' had banned pupils from bringing their bikes through the gates because of health and safety concern, when it seems the real reason was that the bike shed had been removed to make way for more car parking space!

It goes without saying there is no real health and safety element to either of these tabloid tales but what is really disappointing is seeing schools apparently joining the bandwagon of using health and safety as an excuse.

Of course schools need to teach children about risk, but it must be about real risks not this nonsense. We don't want see this skewed view of what safety means being passed on to the next generation of possible engineers - there's a real risk it will turn them off.

Projections suggest that by 2050 the human population will reach at least nine billion. For that many people to stay alive, access to clean water, affordable food, housing, clothing, transport, healthcare and energy supplies will be essential and chemical engineering will be a vital part of that jigsaw. Good schools need to focus on turning out people who are risk savvy, not risk averse petty bureaucrats equipped with tick-box clipboards. Safety needs to be a core value in schools just like everywhere else - not the first excuse of choice when things get a bit difficult.

2016-04-13