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    HSE Chair questions architects’ contribution to inherent safety

    Judith Hackitt CBE and Chair of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has delivered the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) and Costain Health and Safety Lecture at the ICE London HQ.

    The lecture makes the distinction between Occupational Safety and Operational Safety and identifies two “very simple principles” at the heart of Operational Safety which are applicable to industries beyond the chemicals sector. These principles identified are:

    • Inherently safer design; and
    • Prevention of catastrophic incidents.

    The lecture goes on to draw out the implications for the construction sector. Key points are repeated below. Click here for the full text.

    Inherently safer design

    Ms Hackitt reminded her audiance that inherently safer design is a principle which can be applied during certain “windows of opportunity” in the life of any project or facility.

    Trevor Kletz is remembered by chemical engineers as a leader on process safety who coined the maxim “What you don’t have can’t leak”. In design terms to chemical engineers this means eliminating inventories of hazardous materials within the process. Ms Hackitt added:

    “In civil engineering terms the principle of inherent safety in design lies at the heart of the Construction Design and Management Regulations. One of the intentions of these regulations is to get people involved in projects to consider safety issues beyond the construction phase and to build into the design the means for the facility to be used, operated, maintained and ultimately demolished more safely.

    I have to say that despite the many successes we can attribute to the introduction of CDM, I have yet to see overwhelming evidence that Architects pay sufficient attention to the practical risks of changing light bulbs and other such mundane maintenance tasks in some of the undoubtedly eye-catching and often beautiful structures which they develop.

    Inherently safer design is of course not limited to conceptual grass roots design. There will be many other opportunities during the life span of any project to make a difference and reduce inherent levels of risk. The recent breakthrough, thanks to chemistry of course – which has painted the Forth railway bridge with a long lasting corrosion resistant paint will eliminate the customary reference to painting the bridge as being a continuous operation.

    But inherently safer design may also require some different thinking to take place in companies and organisations who commission major projects. All too often competitive bids for projects are assessed on price alone and by “price” what is actually meant is the capital expenditure required to build the facility without sufficient if any regard to ongoing operating cost.

    It may well be the case that an inherently safer design will cost incrementally more to build, but the case must look at the full life cycle costs and the potential for massive savings in operating expense over the life cycle of the project which could potentially dwarf the increased Capex outlay.”

    Prevention of catastrophes

    The HSE Chair pointed out that her main theme was preventing catastrophe and looking at what lessons can be learned from other industries to apply to the construction sector. She stressed:

    Never assume that the worst can’t happen and that you have “nailed” the problem. Whilst it is true that we have made significant advances in safety systems, remember that those new systems that we have introduced can also fail. We may have added layers of protection but if those layers are not maintained they can provide a false comfort blanket.

    Catastrophes can only be prevented if the potential for them to happen is recognised throughout the organisation from the very top to the very bottom- and if that recognition creates a feeling of constant unease and vulnerability, not a sense of complacency.”

    Catastrophe prevention / Operational safety indicators must be predominantly leading not lagging. The absence of a major incident for several years is not a good measure of performance. Ms Hackitt suggests some such measures which could be widely applicable:

    • how many safety critical systems are overdue for test and maintenance?
    • do you know what your safety critical layers of protection are?
    • how do you know they are working?
    • do your employees feel empowered to stop work if they feel there is a potential problem?
    • do you praise or blame them when they do?

    Ms Hackitt concluded:

    “Process Safety / Catastrophe prevention is not easy. It requires the asking of searching questions. What you need to measure is likely to be specific to your business / process so it’s hard to simply copy what others do – but you can still learn from others.

    Every branch of engineering which builds and operates facilities on a large scale has the capacity for catastrophic events to occur which could not only claim lives but destroy the business itself. Operational safety – catastrophe prevention is an essential part of a comprehensive and effective safety management system.”

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