Life as an engineer (94)

Between being touched by enlightenment in 1977 and being crushed in the night after entering a Lutheran Church and before an American resident in Amsterdam associated with the Hell’s Angel club spoke to me the next morning I carried on as normal. I was concerned about the environment, (almost in love with a Danish lady called Birgitte Kristensen who worked in the city environment department) and when her ex and I were getting the the youth hotel ready for visitors in that summer I expressed concern for the safety of the guests in case of fire.

After gaining a degree and a Masters degree some 12 years later I started work on safety critical software management for the UK government and started taking eco-friendly holidays.

There seems something consistent there in my life, my desire for others not to suffer pain and to protect a lovely planet.

The article below is probably the peak of my efforts to correlate academically these two concerns, ecology and safety in less than one thousand words. It was published in the Safety Critical Systems Newsletter volume 19-2 published January 2010, for which I thank the editor Felix for his tolerance of my wandering thoughts . It was also published, in slightly revised form by the Institute Of Engineering and Technology, formerly the IEE in their “Members News” magazine appearing on the IET web-site on 18th January 2011:


The Engineering Council UK has recently updated their “Engineers and the Environment” code. It states that Engineers should :

•Do more than just comply with legislation and codes;
•Contribute to building a sustainable society, present and future;
•Apply professional and responsible judgement and take a leadership role;
•Use resources efficiently and effectively;
•Seek multiple views to solve sustainability challenges;
•Manage risk to minimise adverse impact to people and the environment.

The question this begs is “Where do responsibilities end?” Is it when a project reaches its conclusion, or is an engineer’s responsibility a lifestyle issue as well?
I ask that question because I am a Chartered Engineer in the Institution of Engineering and Technology. In addition to the Engineering Council’s requirements, the IET Bye-Law 29 on Professional Conduct is fairly open-ended on:
29. Persons in any category of membership shall at all times…….safeguard the public interest in matters of health, safety, the environment and otherwise.

Clearly, to look after all the public interest in everything we come across would take more than every hour of every day of one’s life. A balance is needed between safeguarding others and having a life.

To try and answer the question of where responsibilities end involves looking at a number of issues, such as:
•What hazards we know of;
•What of our knowledge we act on;
•Our perception of risk;
•How much time we feel we have to live;
•Whether one does something about everything one considers unsafe.

So can our standard risk analysis tools be used to save the ecology of the planet from the 6 billion, (or maybe 9 billion by 2050), [It is said that the world’s population will double in 30 years] consumers who seem to dwell in a valley of apathy and ignorance? David Porter of the Association of Electricity Producers wrote in July 2009, (on the growing government and business consensus about rising fuel prices), “If the costs of environmental commitments are unclear and the benefits are not explained, there is a risk that public opinion may force a political U-turn”. That sounds extreme, but every risk presented to people these days seems to need pointing out over and over again in order for any notice to be taken, e.g. sun-bathing leading to skin cancer, untreated sexually transmitted diseases leading to infertility, (The Darwin Awards come to mind), and heavy alcohol consumption leading to liver failure in the early thirties, etc. Those, of course, are actually hazards affecting the lives of voluntary risk-takers, the length of their lives, and the degree of their own suffering. If they ignore these, how then can something more abstract, like the welfare of the planet, be conveyed to them so that they become concerned?

To examine this question, this short essay looks at the application of UK Defence Standard 00-56 in the context of environmental concerns, by examining a few of the clauses.

Clause 6.5 Input from MOD stakeholders and other stakeholders will be required to enable a demonstrably safe system to be produced. The Contractor shall implement measures, in cooperation with the Duty Holder, to provide the opportunity for effective stakeholder representation to be achieved, particularly during the safety risk management activities.

The crucial stakeholders where ecology is concerned are the people who live in the threatened environments, for instance, in the forests of Gabon and Cameroon, the Baku people, (also, if we respected biodiversity more, perhaps we could include the animals and plants of the forests as stakeholders too). The people who are closest to a problem best understand their needs. It must be remembered, however, that not all stakeholders can have what they want, as one has witnessed in China with the mass displacement of people for the creation of The Three Gorges dam. Equally in England, the mass migration to the cities in the nineteenth century was largely due to mechanisation of agriculture. The cities offered an opportunity at least to survive. The rural idyll disappeared. Most people had no real choice. Legislation tends to iterate towards offering more protection to the individual in terms of rights, but could the process ever occur quickly enough to save biodiversity, if whatever will be affected – animals, plants or in some cases people – do not have direct voting rights and are effectively excluded from the table of stakeholders.

A few years ago I worked in Italy on a reserve in the Isonzo river delta, where winning over some reluctant stakeholders, the hunters, to a project for the creation of a bird sanctuary had been a difficult task. At first they swore they did not want a bird sanctuary on their doorstep. However, they were eventually won over with the promise of sustainable bird shooting through sacrifice of one of their good hunting grounds as a protected breeding ground. So both hunting and ornithological stakeholders gained a reasonable degree of satisfaction.

Clause 7.1 The Contractor shall provide evidence that tasks within their control that influence safety are carried out by individuals and organisations that are demonstrably competent to perform those tasks. The Contractor shall provide the resources necessary for the tasks to be completed satisfactorily.

The election of politicians is within the control of the voter so, for a moment, viewing the voter as the contractor in the clause above two questions come to mind. Firstly is the voter responsible enough to ensure he or she is provided with evidence by the elected representatives who do the task of creating legislation to protect the environment and secondly are the elected politicians [I think that your shift from contractors to politicians is a bit sudden It might be better to explain the jump.] competent enough for the task? Do the politicians fully understand the risks or is that impossible without scientists and engineers in Government instead of just advising it, (noting that in China a large proportion of the ruling council are engineers by profession whereas in the west, lawyers are more commonly to be found in power)? Do western politicians understand that, for instance, climate change prevention choices are not about casual flutters, perhaps like gambling on the colour of the jockey's silks in a horse race, but about mitigating what could be serious threat’s to civilisation? If we mitigate appropriately, we may well not even know how close to a tipping point we came, only that the disaster did not happen. Could that be explained to the public so that they vote sensibly?

Clause 8.1.1 The Safety Management Plan shall detail the specific actions and arrangements required to operate a Safety Management System and define safety milestones for the project. It shall provide the link between safety requirements and general management processes for the project, to ensure that safety is achieved and maintained in a planned way.
So a plan for the future of the planet should include some milestones. As engineers we are used to deadlines and milestones. Do our politicians take their business seriously or do they only see themselves like a poor immoral engineer might, not worrying because they won’t be on the project (aka ‘in parliament’), at the point when realisation that a crisis is happening comes. Do MPs really believe and strive to achieve deadlines for CO2 emissions, halting biodiversity loss and the funding of alternative technologies? There seems to be no sense of urgency and, where there is, it conveniently ignores salient truths. Some milestones appear to be in place but the targets are plagued by a lack of strict legislation. An example of such a milestone is halting the decline in biodiversity by 2010. In 2008 Sir Martin Doughty, Chair of Natural England, said, “All the evidence points to the fact that the quality and extent of our natural environment will continue to decline unless current policies and land management practices are changed. Failure to respond will have enormously damaging implications for our wildlife, our landscapes, our health and our quality of life.”
Despite the intention to create plans for conservation, prescribed by Article 6 of the Convention on Biological Diversity of 1993, the convention looks toothless as rainforests are converted to palm oil plantations to feed the addiction to motoring and species consequently vanish. There is little effort to manage the laudable aims of the convention as one would manage safety of a building, for instance.

Clause 9.1 The Contractor shall produce a Safety Case for the system on behalf of the Duty Holder. The Safety Case shall consist of a structured argument, supported by a body of evidence that provides a compelling, comprehensible and valid case that a system is safe for a given application in a given environment.

Does committing to CO2 emission reduction outside the life of the parliament, and signing international treaties on biodiversity, provide ‘compelling comprehensible and valid’ cases that we can believe in? Is there any truth in the claims of politicians? Many politicians shy away from mentioning restricting population growth, stopping bush meat harvesting, stopping over-fishing and halting rainforest destruction in the same speech. These issues are of course linked but not yet in voter’s minds because hard decisions are not the currency of getting elected. A typical chain of events is occurring in Sumatra. Rainforest burning to establish palm oil plantations to supply the increasing demand of increasing populations leads to draining of peat bogs and consequent methane release and destruction of the habitat of the rare Sumatran Tiger. Our own government will commit to supplying us all with cars and say they have saved the tiger by signing agreements. The case for achieving both is far from conclusive.


JG Ballard's novel "The Drowned World" tells the story of a world largely drowned up to temperate latitudes by solar heating. Some characters act madly with their own and others’ lives, others become as immoral as marauding gangs in spaghetti westerns, seeing everything as being about money, knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing. The villains of the very real threats the world faces these days are increasing CO2 and wilderness destruction. However, the result may be similar to those sketched in the novel.

Engineers have traditionally not been obsessively money-oriented, perhaps because such self-centred attitudes are ameliorated by the satisfaction gained from the success of projects. Is it then incumbent on engineers to provide a lead in changing global viewpoints about what constitutes acceptable behaviour in relation to the environment? The Chinese certainly believe engineers have a valuable contribution to make to government, as already mentioned.

All our efforts to create safe systems may be pointless if, in the end, the rush for competitiveness leads to conflicts on a global scale, collapsed economies, wars over water, mass migration, etc. Engineers have children too, who need a future.

Some risks to life on earth may be considered so great that our only mitigation is another risky technology, like nuclear energy to reduce CO2 emissions. In that event, engineers will be able to apply the principles of Def Stan 00-56, in a more native setting, rather than the hypothetical use described here. Perhaps we need safety engineers as non-executive members of committees concerned about the environment to add understanding of balancing hazard analysis and risks. Currently the ecological balance has swung far too far toward cutting costs and making a profit where the price of everything is known but the true value not known. Cost cutting, as we engineers know only too well can so easily lead to engineering disasters such as the sinking of the Petrobras oil rig.

What we think we leave at work, (risk analysis), we perhaps need to take home with us and change our own and, where we can, others’ lifestyles.

One could then be said to be upholding IET principles in one’s lifestyle as well as employment.



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