An Insult to Female Engineers

I’ve mentioned my genius ex-girlfriend several times before:

Back in 1999 I dated a girl who was studying Mechanical Engineering in the year below me. She went by the name of Wendy and came from somewhere near Nottingham, and she was probably the cleverest person I’ve ever met anywhere, one of those extraordinarily gifted people who just turn up out of nowhere. I think she completed her four year course with an average mark across all subjects of around 90%, and won every damned prize going in the engineering school such that even after her second year her name graced most of the plaques in the foyer. I remember her sitting a 2-hour engineering maths exam and walking out at the earliest opportunity, which was 30 minutes. She told me she’d finished after 20 minutes and that included checking.  She got 100%. She was also a Grade 8 at piano and clarinet. Like I say, an absolute genius (although not clever enough to keep clear of me). My point is that exceptionally clever women have been excelling in hard engineering subjects for at least 20 years, it is nothing new.

Here’s another thing about her: she flatly rejected suggestions she was especially clever (Kate Mulvey, take note), insisting she simply worked hard. Which she did, she worked like hell, revising for days before each exam taking every one deadly seriously, which is why she got scores over 90%. If she’d done no revision, skipped lectures, and stayed in bed until 2pm she’d have still coasted through with first class honours, but that’s not who she was. And I don’t think it would have ever occurred to her that she was remarkable because she was a woman; the idea that female engineers were more noteworthy than the males, or there was any difference between us, was simply not on the horizon in my university days, or in the early years of my career. How times have changed:

Britain’s first specialist engineering university will take school-leavers without A-level maths or physics to boost the number of female students.

The first provost of the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE), which is due to open in Hereford in 2020, said that she was determined to increase the number of women taking the subject.

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, 46, the university’s provost and chief academic officer, said that she would welcome students with three arts A levels. She said that Britain was the only country to insist that engineering students had maths and physics qualifications. School-leavers with strong GCSEs in maths and science and A levels in any subject could apply to NMITE.

Its students will be called “learners” because there will be no lectures, studying or traditional exams and they will not graduate with an honours degree. Nor will they specialise in a particular type of engineering, such as mechanical or electrical. Instead they will work on real projects in groups of five, for nearly a month at a time, and build up a portfolio proving their skills, leaving with a pass or fail in a masters degree.

This isn’t about getting women into engineering; it’s not even about engineering at all. It’s about pretending dim middle-class women are cleverer than they are by having them play-act a serious role. They might as well take them to a petting zoo and a garden centre and call them farmers. I shudder to think what my female engineering colleagues think of this.

Share

Another deadly fire in Russia

This is bad:

At least 53 people have died in a fire that tore through a shopping and entertainment complex in the Siberian coal-mining city of Kemerovo.

As many as 41 children may be among the victims, officials say, and more than 10 are listed as missing.

The blaze started on an upper floor of the Winter Cherry complex while many of the victims were at the cinema.

Video posted on social media showed people jumping from windows to escape the flames on Sunday.

“According to preliminary information, the roof collapsed in two cinemas,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement.

Deadly fires are too common in Russia, the most infamous in recent memory being the Perm nightclub fire in 2009 which killed 156 people. As was reported at the time:

Alexander Fridman, a local entertainment producer in Perm, says he has little doubt that corruption has to be factored into any explanation for the Lame Horse tragedy.

“Fire inspectors found violations of the regulations a year ago, yet they didn’t come back to check whether corrections were made. Why was that?,” he asks. “There were hundreds of people gathering at that club every night, yet they never closed it down. The basic lesson is that fire inspectors should not take bribes.”

Amid Russia’s decaying infrastructure and often jury-rigged new construction, the potential for such accidents abound because laws are not enforced, experts say.

“I see this danger everywhere I go, especially places like supermarkets,” says Vyacheslav Glazychev, a professor at Moscow’s official Institute of Architecture. “As long as we have this practice of paying bribes rather than making the needed improvements, nothing will change.”

I have experience in construction in Russia and dealing with the fire safety authorities, and I can confirm that the entire system is a vehicle for graft. There’s actually not a lot wrong with Russia’s fire safety laws, and the design of a new building must include adequate fire protection and safety measures to get approval. However, the fire inspectors have a nasty habit of finding “problems” – even if none exists – and to rectify the situation to their satisfaction you must pay a specific person or company. Once paid, they leave you alone in many cases. So instead of having a situation whereby the fire inspectors are satisfied only once they’ve seen a building is safe, we have one whereby they are satisfied merely by being paid. Note that the building’s owner might not always be at fault here: he has no choice but to pay, and might not be aware that he’s in breach of fire safety regulations (like most Russian laws, following them is not straightforward). It’s the inspectors’ job to identify any non-compliances, but if they’re only interested in shaking people down for bribes who knows what they might overlook?

As well as a multiplex cinema, the shopping centre, which opened in 2013, includes restaurants, a sauna, a bowling alley and a petting zoo.

This is a modern building, not some ramshackle old thing made from wood. There should have been adequate fire protection systems in place (e.g. fireproof cladding), as well as a sprinkler system which would slow the fire’s spread and give everyone enough time to get out. As with previous disasters, the authorities will investigate, widespread corruption and non-compliances with the fire code will be identified, some sap will be fingered and thrown in jail and anyone with money and connections will walk free. Even if the owner is jailed, as was the case after the Perm nightclub fire, you can be sure no senior government official will suffer anything greater than an awkward question or two.

Share

Credit where none is due

I can see what’s happened here:

Twelve-year-old Michelle Flores shared a special moment with her family at FIU this past Saturday: She and her sister Gabriela joined their parents, FIU alumni Leonor and Henry Flores MIS ’01, to watch a 950-ton section of a pedestrian bridge swing into its permanent position across Southwest 8th Street.

Leonor Flores ’98 is a project executive and one of 63 FIU alumni who work for MCM, the construction firm building the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge, which will further connect FIU and its northerly neighbor, the City of Sweetwater. She was excited to share her work with her family, especially Michelle, who is interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in school.

Michelle said she might want to follow in her parents’ footsteps and go to FIU when the time comes, and that it was fascinating to see her mom’s work in action. “I’m interested in the architecture and the design of the bridge, and the math portion of it,” she said.

Said Leonor: “It’s very important for me as a woman and an engineer to be able to promote that to my daughter, because I think women have a different perspective. We’re able to put in an artistic touch and we’re able to build, too.”

Then the bridge collapsed across eight lanes of highway crushing people underneath, and FIU provided this update:

UPDATE, March 16, 2018, 11 a.m.: To clarify, Leonor Flores did not work on the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge project in any capacity.

When you read the original text carefully, you can see it doesn’t actually say that Flores worked on the bridge. But by including her heart-warming tale of women in engineering in a story about a bridge installation, that’s what they implied. It was a deliberate attempt to link Flores and female engineers in general with this particular project, which at the time was looking like a success and attracting publicity. However, now people across the internet are questioning the wisdom of having a woman put “an artistic touch” to something that goes on to fail in deadly fashion, they’re having to come clean.

This sort of manipulation is not unusual in modern engineering projects, or anywhere else in today’s corporate world. I once worked for a large multinational engineering firm who had on their books a rather photogenic female Russian safety engineer. Sure enough, she featured prominently in several of the quarterly magazines (or whatever they call those propaganda rags that get hoyed in the bin by anyone who does something useful). Now she wasn’t a terrible engineer, but she didn’t deserve so many puff-pieces in short succession. Speaking to friends and colleagues who’ve worked on sites and in yards around the world, whenever there’s a photo session going on the women and ethnic minorities are placed in prominent positions and white men told to stand to the side, preferably behind a large object. An exception is in Nigeria where a European woman, who’d played a key role in the engineering of the installation, was asked to remove herself from the group because having no white people in the photo made Nigerians happier. Go through the prospectus of any company or organisation these days and you’ll get interviews and quotes from women and ethnic minorities, half of whom I suspect don’t even work there. I am absolutely sure most of the “staff” photos are from stock.

I don’t mind women or ethnic minorities being interviewed, and I even don’t get upset if they’re given a little more prominence than perhaps they deserve (it’s PR, after all). But to interview someone who wasn’t even involved with the project is pretty cynical. I’m sure there were women working on this bridge and doing a fine job, but presumably couldn’t provide a twelve year old daughter who comes out with cutesy lines right on cue. I wonder what they thought of the interview when it was first published? I can imagine “Who the fuck is she?” was asked quite a lot.

If companies want people to take women in engineering seriously they need to quit pulling stunts like this, or they might as well go and hire actors.

(With thanks to Lord T and JerryC in the comments.)

Share

The Bridge Collapse in Miami

It goes without saying that this is a disaster:

At least four people have been killed and 10 others hurt after a footbridge collapsed near Florida International University in Miami, officials say.

The 862-tonne, 174ft (53m) bridge fell over an eight-lane motorway on Thursday afternoon, crushing at least eight vehicles, police said.

They told local media that vehicles were stopped at a traffic light when the structure collapsed at about 13:30 local time (17:30 GMT).

It is still unclear how many people were under the bridge at the time.

For a standard, single-span footbridge to suddenly collapse in this manner in the United States in 2018 is incredible. Reinforced concrete footbridges have been built worldwide for decades, and ought to be the sort of thing a highways department can design and build on their own. Perhaps one 53m long over an 8-lane highway requires some specialist assistance, but still. This was not the Millau Viaduct.

These days engineering firms use finite element modelling (FEM) programs which can predict how a structure will perform under load, identify any weak points, and calculate the stresses induced in every location. The bridge which collapsed looks to be of an unusual design, no doubt approved by an architect somewhere, but that is precisely what the FEM models are for. Using them you can depart from a traditional design, incorporate architectural features, and still be sure your structure is sound. A newly installed footbridge suddenly collapsing onto traffic in the US is the equivalent of a batch of canned goods killing people, the contents having reacted to the metal. There is enough knowledge and experience by now to ensure these sort of accidents no longer occur.

Yet it did, so why? The BBC tells us this:

The bridge was erected on Saturday in just six hours.

It was built using a method called “accelerated bridge construction” to avoid traffic disruption. A major section of the bridge was assembled on the side of the road and then raised into place.

I’ve written before about bridge collapses, and how they tend to happen during construction, but I don’t think the installation method described above had anything to do with it. There’s a video here of the bridge being installed, and it looks to me like a pretty common technique which doesn’t in itself explain why it collapsed a few days later.

So here’s my guess: somebody screwed up the calculations or the finite element model, and nobody picked up the error. If this was in the developing world I’d be more inclined to believe it was shoddy construction or poor materials rather than a design error, but this being the US I can’t see that happening. The company that carried out the engineering was Munilla Construction company, a family-owned firm whose website is here. They’re based in Miama and have been around since 1983 and they claim:

WE BUILD YOUR PROJECT ON TIME, ON BUDGET, AS DESIGNED AND WITHOUT ANY SURPRISES.

They might want to update that at some point.

What follows is pure speculation on my part but it’s based on what I’ve observed of engineering companies and corporations over the past 15-20 years or so. Back in 1983 the firm would have employed serious engineers who held themselves accountable, and the brothers who founded it probably did a lot of the work themselves. There is no doubt this company was able to successfully deliver engineering projects for a couple of decades, so they’re not some fly-by-night outfit owned by the wife of the local mayor.

But I suspect things changed sometime in the past 5-10 years. There is nothing on the company website to suggest they succumbed to the relentless pressure placed upon firms to hire people based on their appearance and sex rather than competence and ability, but I’d be surprised if they were wholly unaffected by demands for greater workforce “diversity”. After all, this was a firm which did several projects for the public sector, and installed the bridge on behalf of a university. It’s unlikely they weren’t required to demonstrate they were fully on-board with the latest progressive directives. At a guess, I would say this is a company which has seen several experienced engineers retire over the past decade, replaced with people whose abilities are questionable.

Secondly, as I have complained about in the past, there has been a major shift in modern companies from delivering something useful – such as a bridge which doesn’t collapse – to managing processes. A lot of companies have subcontracted out the actual work – designing, building, manufacturing, operating, maintaining – and instead busy themselves with “managing” the whole process. This involves lots of well-educated people in nice clothes sitting in glass-fronted office buildings sharing spreadsheets, reports, and PowerPoint presentations by email and holding lengthy meetings during which they convince one another of how essential they are. I’m sure this is pretty much what Carillion was doing when they went bust: anything useful was done by subcontractors. The distance between those doing the actual work and those supposedly responsible for the outcome has, in far too many companies, grown into a yawning chasm. Survival in a modern company is all about compliance and obedience, and accountability is non-existent because it is no longer required.

In such an environment, it is inevitable that the quality of work suffers, errors go unnoticed, and – occasionally – catastrophes occur. Now I don’t know if that was the case at the Munilla Construction company, but somehow they’ve gone from an outfit who could deliver a project with their eyes closed to one that has just dropped a simple footbridge on eight lanes of highway. If I were investigating, I’d want to know who did the actual design and where it was done. I’d be willing to bet a hundred quid the calculations and finite element modelling were done outside the US to save money, or subcontracted to another company, and supervision – which involves expensive Americans – was at nowhere near the levels it should have been. Regardless of where they were done, I’d also be willing to bet the company spent more manhours on progress meetings and overly-detailed weekly reports to let the management know what was going on than they did checking the engineering calculations.

I might be wrong, and maybe I’m being unfair to the Munilla Construction company. But I’m not wrong in describing how modern companies work. I have a hunch we’re going to see more disasters like this in the coming years as successive generations of managers and engineers fail to deliver what were, until recently, pretty ordinary projects.

UPDATE

David Moore posts a link to this video which reckons the bridge was supposed to be supported from above using cables in the final design. If they’re right, then this is a classic case of a poorly-supported bridge span collapsing during construction, and we can all go and read my previous post. It doesn’t make the cock-up any less severe though, just slightly more understandable.

Share

When Towers and Trust Collapse

The BBC is running a story about 9/11 conspiracy theories:

On 11 September 2001, four passenger planes were hijacked by radical Islamist terrorists – almost 3,000 people were killed as the aircraft were flown into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Just hours after the collapse of New York’s Twin Towers, a conspiracy theory surfaced online which persists more than 16 years later.

“Is it just me?” an internet user named David Rostcheck wrote, “or did anyone else recognise that it wasn’t the airplane impacts that blew up the World Trade Centre?

“I hope other people are actually catching this, but I haven’t seen anyone say it yet, so I guess I will. There’s no doubt that the planes hit the building and did a lot of damage. But look at the footage – those buildings were demolished,” he continued. “To demolish a building, you don’t need all that much explosive but it needs to be placed in the correct places… Someone had to have a lot of access to all of both towers and a lot of time to do this. This is pretty grim. The really dire part is – what were the planes for?”

Subsequent investigations made it clear that the tower structures were weakened by the inferno from the planes and felled by the weight of collapsing floors. However even now some people refuse to believe this version of events.

I watched the towers collapse on a television in the conference room of an engineering consultancy, surrounded by civil and structural engineers. None of us could believe what we saw, and many of us thought an airplane crashing into the towers couldn’t cause the towers to collapse as they did. A few months later some American TV station aired a program explaining exactly how they collapsed, someone recorded it, and we all packed into the same conference room to watch it. Everyone came away fully satisfied by the explanations given.

The video explained that the two towers fell in quite different ways. Their construction consisted of an inner steel core and an outer shell, held together by cross-braces made of light steel. Neither the inner core or outer shell could stand independently, so the cross bracing was essential. When the aircraft struck the impact knocked off a lot of the fire protection, and the subsequent fire weakened the cross bracing to the point the outer shell fell away, causing the entire tower to collapse. In one video clip you can actually see the core standing on its own for a fraction of a second before it too collapsed to the ground. The other tower fell differently. When the aircraft struck, the resulting fire weakened the supporting steel above the impact point so the entire (intact) tower section above slammed into the floor below, which gave way, and the process repeated through several floors bringing the entire structure crashing down. Although burning jet fuel is insufficient to melt steel, any increase in temperature beyond a certain point severely reduces its structural strength, and temperatures far exceeded that point.

There are many inexplicable elements to 9/11, but most have to do with the fact that this event was entirely without precedent. Nobody could possibly have predicted what would happen should two colossal skyscrapers come crashing down in sequence in the middle of a city, and the mechanisms it triggered in the immediate surroundings will never be properly understood. People say WTC 7 (or whatever) should not have collapsed in the way it did; well, nobody knows how a building is going to behave subject to forces of that nature, all we can do is look at the wreckage and try to figure it out. If the same thing was repeated half a dozen times we might get a better idea, but until then there will always be a lot of odd phenomena about 9/11 we can’t explain. This is what conspiracy theorists rely on when peddling their nonsense.

However, the point of my post is to highlight how much times have changed. When 9/11 occurred there was still some semblance of trust in the US government, and only demented conspiracy theorists believed it would be an inside job. Most people were even on board with the official explanation, which seemed to make sense to me. I certainly can’t see any reason not to believe the official version of events, at least those concerning the WTC and the Pentagon (the story of Flight 93 lends itself to some manipulation, not least because we don’t know for sure what the target was and how it was brought down). But public trust took a huge knock a year later when George W. Bush and co. started banging on about Iraq’s nuclear weapons and resorting to complete bullshit to make the case for war. Since then things have gone rapidly downhill: the Obama years saw the utter corruption of government agencies, flat-out lies concerning Benghazi and Fast and Furious, and since Trump’s election it’s been non-stop disinformation regarding Russia’s alleged interference in US politics. To cap it all, we had a gunman firing hundreds of rounds into a crowd in Las Vegas and after a brief period of feeding the public contemptible bullshit, law enforcement officials and politicians have decided they’re not going to tell anyone what happened, and the media aren’t in the slightest bit interested in finding out. The government’s reaction to this event was so remarkable that even normal, balanced people were convinced something was rotten about the whole thing. And we’re still waiting for answers, by the way.

So my point is that the 9/11 conspiracy theories are nonsense, but if 9/11 happened today the public would have every reason to think they were being told a pack of lies from the outset and they’d almost certainly be right. This collapse in public trust may prove almost as catastrophic as the collapse of the towers themselves.

Share

Natural Limits

To kick this post off, here’s a photo of the world’s largest dump truck, the BelAz 75710 made in Belarus.

I once read that a rubber tyre with a diameter larger than about 18 feet (5.4m) quickly becomes impractical. Similarly, even though an Airbus A380 is considerably larger than the Wright brothers’ flyer, nobody has built an aeroplane a mile long capable of carrying several thousand passengers. We’re probably approaching the limit on ship size, and although skyscrapers are getting ever-taller they’ll top-out eventually. My point is that there is a limit to things, and in these examples they are governed by the laws of physics and the physical properties of materials, air, and water.

Some things don’t scale, and even when they do, it’s not necessarily in a linear manner. I first went to Singapore when I was 23 and couldn’t believe how well-run the place was. My first thought was that everywhere should be run as well as Singapore, using the same methods. Now I’m a bit older I realise that running a city state of 5.6m people condensed into an island of 278 square miles isn’t the same as running a country of 70m people spread across 93,600 square miles. As societies grow from families to tribes to towns to cities to nation states, different methods of maintaining cohesion and control are needed at each step. In short, human societies don’t scale.

In my previous post I wrote about the behaviour of Pope Francis. Now if the Pope can’t be bothered defending the Catholic church and prefers to pander to people who will, once they have the numbers, kill his followers and burn his palace to the ground, it’s a sign that things have gone badly wrong somewhere. I cite this because it exemplifies what is going on in the western world today: every single major institution I can think of seems to be in the final throes of self-destruction, abject surrender to its enemies, or suicide. Many of these institutions have for centuries formed the foundation of western societies and have contributed substantially to their success, yet they are being destroyed by the very people who have been charged with their guardianship.

I’ve spent a while thinking about this and I reckon it has something to do with what I described earlier. Just as mechanical systems run into physical limitations beyond which they don’t work, there is probably a point beyond which human societies simply fail to hold themselves together and self-destruct. Human’s are odd creatures, and thrive when faced with hardship. The capacity of humans to overcome the most appalling conditions and adapt in order to survive is incredible, matched only by our ability to constantly seek to improve our lives. There is an optimum level of stress for humans: too much and we can’t function beyond the basics to stay alive, but too little and we become equally useless.

Insofar as western, Christian societies have gone most societal and technological advances appear to have come about as a result of people wanting to ensure Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are not only met, but permanently assured – particularly those at the bottom of the pyramid. These societies have become so wealthy that Maslow’s needs are now met by default for tens of millions of people. Furthermore, this has been going on so long that anyone born in western society who ever worried about these things is well over seventy. Anyone younger than that, generally speaking, has had the easiest ride in the entire history of mankind.

It is probably no coincidence that it’s these younger people who now seem so determined to destroy the foundations of the society they’ve been raised in. I found when I lived in under-developed countries that people there are completely unconcerned about the minutiae of politics; they are only interested in the important matters that directly affect them and their families. As an example, the only people in the entire world interested in transgender rights are white, western liberals. For everyone else, it is simply a non-issue. Russians were mainly interested in their salaries, their mothers’ pensions, and the price of a decent car. Nigerians were chiefly concerned about their salaries, job security, and the levels of violence and corruption in their country. People who come from places where the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are not assured tend to focus on important issues and ignore the rest.

So I have a theory. Just as a you can’t use a rubber tyre beyond 18 feet in diameter due to natural limitations, there is a limit to which human societies can grow in terms of wealth and comfort. Beyond a certain point, the bonds which hold the society together, which have been painstakingly constructed over centuries, get cut because people no longer realise what they’re for and the whole thing collapses. It might be that this societal limit is relative – either in terms of other societies around it, or perhaps the rate of change from earlier generations – but I am reasonably sure that such a limit nonetheless exists.

One thing I notice in the language of progressives is a hubristic certainty that their version of society, once shaped, will last forever because there is nothing left to discuss, as if their vision is inevitable. Personally, I don’t think we’ll see a whole lot of advancement from this point on; I don’t think we’re going to be looking at a future of interstellar travel and permanent luxury, but a world where everyone now needs to remember how much hard work, cooperation, and violence is required to get the bottom of that pyramid of needs met. Perhaps in time humankind will recover from the setback and rebuild, just as Europeans eventually managed to meet and then surpass the levels of sophistication the Romans achieved, but it may take centuries if not longer.

I might be wrong, but there is one thing I am absolutely sure of. Historians will look back on this era and prevailing opinions regarding matters such as immigration, religion, political violence, war, economics, taxation, redistribution, procreation, welfare, race, law and order, and politics and marvel at how we blindly assumed western civilisation would survive. I’d also make a tidy bet they too will talk about how the collapse was inevitable once we’d reached a certain level of wealth and comfort. I concede they might not use a dump truck to illustrate the point, though.

Share

A Detail of the Berlin Wall

Once, when watching a documentary on the history of the Berlin Wall, I learned something I’ve never been able to forget:

That rounded piece on top of the wall was obviously put there to make it harder to climb over. When I visited Berlin in 1995 and saw a preserved section, I assumed it was moulded as part of the wall itself. But according to this documentary, it was just a bog-standard piece of concrete pipe with a longitudinal section cut out and plonked over the top. I always thought this level of crudity was apt for what the wall was, and what it represented.

I also read last week that the Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up. If anyone were to look around now, they’d scarcely believe the thing ever existed or the Communists lost the Cold War and the right side won.

Share

The Grenfell Tower and Sprinklers

From the BBC:

London’s fire commissioner says the Grenfell Tower blaze must be a “turning point”, calling for sprinklers in all high-rise council flats.

Dany Cotton, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, said: “I think Grenfell should be a turning point.

“I support retrofitting – for me where you can save one life then it’s worth doing.

“This can’t be optional, it can’t be a nice to have, this is something that must happen.

“If that isn’t one of the recommendations (of the Grenfell Tower inquiry) then I will be so very disappointed.”

Firstly a little on the background of Dany Cotton:

Since 2017, she has served as the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade and is the first woman to hold this position. She had previously been the Director of Safety and Assurance at the London Fire Brigade. In 2004 Cotton became the first woman to be awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal. She is the National Chair of Networking Women in the Fire Service.

Aged 19, she had been a full fire-fighter for just three months when she attended the Clapham Junction rail crash. In 2007, she was assigned the post of Area Commander, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the British Fire Service.

Her professional biography seems to be a lot more about being a woman than a firefighter. But let’s look at her remarks.

Retrofitting sprinklers into an existing building will be extortionately expensive:

Croydon Council, in south London, has taken the decision to retrofit sprinklers in its 25 high-rise blocks at a cost of £10m.

I bet that figure will triple. Of course, somebody who has only every worked for a taxpayer-funded organisation like Cotton wouldn’t care too much about what things cost. Look at this statement again:

for me where you can save one life then it’s worth doing.

For a public servant in charge of safety to come out with this is rather illuminating, as it appears she has no idea about how resources are applied to minimise risk. When it comes to safety, you want to spend the money in the areas where it will have the most impact. For example, do you spend £10m on sprinkler systems if the same money spent on networked fire alarms and better fire doors would save more lives? This is something a risk assessment and cost benefit analysis would tell us, and this is what should have been done. The fact that we have the head of the London Fire Brigade saying sprinklers should be retrofitted regardless of cost and their effectiveness suggests that it hasn’t. Then again, nobody seems even in the slightest bit interested in what caused the initial fire, so perhaps we ought not be surprised.

The money from these sprinklers has to come from somewhere, and this will mean cuts to other services or an increase in rents. If the latter, it will push those at the margins into cheaper, less safe accommodation. The video here is not an outtake from The Lord of the Rings but an interview with a spectacularly smug and idiotic Welsh MP talking about Wales being the first country ever to make sprinklers mandatory in all new homes:

I hope they will just look and listen, and I think this idea about over-burdening and over-regulating has proved that we do have to have those regulations. You know, sprinklers have been around since 1886 and the building industry haven’t used them successfully so, you know, if you’re not going to use them in goodwill, then as we have done in Wales, we’ll mandate for you to use them to keep people safe.

Aside from the first sentence being gibberish, at no point does it occur to her that there are good reasons why not a single country in the world has insisted sprinklers are installed in ordinary homes since their alleged invention in 1886. But apparently the Welsh know better and have made it compulsory, and now want to foist this idiocy on the rest of the country.

All this will do is push up the cost of housing, which in the UK is the last thing you want to do. Again, this will simply push those at the margins into cheaper, less safe accommodation. And presumably all homeowners and tenants will know exactly how these systems work and are maintained. I know I wouldn’t.

There’s also the issue of how effective sprinklers are in houses and flats. My understanding, at least from how they’re deployed on oil and gas installations, is they exist to keep surfaces cool and stop fires spreading as opposed to putting fires out. From what I can work out, the fire protection philosophy in buildings is to contain the fire using fire doors, use sprinklers to stop it spreading and keep the escape ways clear, giving you time to evacuate. The fire brigade then come in and put the fire out. In other words, they make sense in places with a proper evacuation plan but not so much in stand-alone private residences.

Interestingly, I’m sat in a 40-storey tower built between 1982-85 which has no sprinkler system. They have fire hoses on each floor but (and I’ve just checked) no sprinklers in the offices, corridors, or stairwells. Is the building unsafe? Probably not. Every door is a fire door, they have a decent alarm system and in the event it goes off everyone evacuates. I suspect a more modern tower would have a sprinkler system in, but I am reasonably sure its purpose would not be to put out an actual fire.

Would sprinkler systems help in a tower like Grenfell? Probably. Would they make much difference in the absence of fire doors and an evacuation procedure? Probably not. They might keep the stairwell clear, but if they’re installed in the apartments themselves you can expect a lot of spurious discharges as people set them off by mistake or maliciously, which would upset those in the flats below. Are they worth the money? In a new-build block, probably. But to insist they’re retrofitted regardless of cost or the lives they’ll save is madness, as is mandating their installation in new-build houses. The money would be far better spent on other fire-safety measures.

I think people have seized upon sprinklers as the solution of the day without really knowing what they’re for or how they work, let alone what they cost. That the head of the London Fire Brigade doesn’t seem to know any better ought to shock, but actually it doesn’t, not at all. This is the new normal. At least she’s got a few medals.

Share

Bridges Collapsing during Construction

My research assistant, who I thought had been slacking off recently, sends me this story:

On June 26, just two weeks after an “inspection” by President Uhuru Kenyatta, a $12 million Chinese-built Sigiri bridge in Western Kenya collapsed before it was completed.

Built by the Chinese Overseas Construction and Engineering Company in Busia County, the bridge connects a region that has historically lacked government investment and development. Around a dozen people died on the river after a boat capsized while attempting to cross in 2014.

I suspect she forwarded it to me thinking I was involved in the design – a reasonable assumption, given the results. But alas, nothing to do with me.

I doubt this is much of a story, actually. The first thing that strikes me is $12m is rather cheap for a bridge, even a relatively small one. And bear in mind this is in the middle of nowhere, which would account for a lot of the costs. Sure, the Chinese have screwed up but at that price, who cares? Just build another one a little further down.

Bridges are prone to failure during construction as, depending on the method, they see stresses during construction they would not normally be subject to once built. I have no idea what happened to the bridge in Kenya – from the photo it looks as though it’s simply sheared off at the far end – but at university I studied the case of the Cleddau Bridge in Pembroke Dock:

The bridge was expected to be completed by March 1971, however on 2 June 1970 a 70 m (230 ft) cantilever being used to put one of the 150-tonne sections into position collapsed on the Pembroke Dock-side of the estuary. Four workers died and five were injured. Construction was halted until October 1972.

(More pics here)

I took an interest in this case study because I used to cross the Cleddau Bridge often as a kid (the lecturer pronounced it Cledd-ow; correctly, it’s Cleth-aye). A section of the box-girder bridge was being extended in cantilever towards its permanent support when it buckled, resulting in catastrophic failure (this word document explains it well). Once installed on both piers, the completed section would have easily been strong enough, but in cantilever it is subjected to much higher stresses.

While this incident is largely forgotten, the collapse of Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge during construction a few months later brought about a global rethink on box-girder bridges. The cause of failure were different, but the failure modes similar (i.e. buckling of a cantilevered span during construction). I’ve both driven over and sailed under the West Gate Bridge, and each time I thought of the Cleddau Bridge back home.

Thankfully, we seem to have learned how to build large bridges without having them collapse during construction. Cheap bridges in remote parts of Africa? We’re getting there. At least nobody was killed (well, we hope: none was reported, anyway).

Share

Two Approaches to Safety

Tim Worstall makes the following remark in response to a column by Polly Toynbee:

There was significant regulation here. What there wasn’t was responsibility. And a little more of the second can be very much more important than the first. Whether we call it the Clerk of Works, or professional responsibility, whatever, that one individual–and yes, making it one person does concentrate minds wonderfully–owns a project, the benefits and failures of it in that liability sense, tends to make things safer. On the very sensible basis that someone with their knackers potentially in the vice tends to pay attention. Box ticking doesn’t have quite the same effect.

This is absolutely correct.

In the wake of Piper Alpha, the regulations governing North Sea oil and gas operations were completely overhauled to address the many, many shortcomings that had led to the world’s worst oilfield disaster. One of them was to adopt what is known in the industry as a risk-based approach to safety, and put the responsibility to implement it on the shoulders of the operating companies.

What this means in practice is this. Each company must demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the UK HSE and – God forbid – a tribunal or court in the event of an accident, that the residual risks have been minimised to a degree which is As Low As Reasonable Practicable (ALARP). Residual risk is the term used to described the risks associated with a facility or operation which remain once mitigation and prevention measures have been implemented. This is important: playing around with highly volatile hydrocarbons is an inherently dangerous business, and there will always be risks associated with it. The requirement is not to eliminate risks entirely, as that would entail leaving the hydrocarbons in the ground, but to minimise the risks that remain once you’ve done all you can.

This is the principle of ALARP: “reasonably practicable” is an open term with no strict definition, but is well understood in the risk management industry. It recognises the fact that money spent on safety and minimising risks is a scarce resource and must be properly targetted. If open-ended safety obligations are demanded of an oil company, commercial operations will cease.

Most important is the word demonstrate, which is why I emboldened it. How a company demonstrates that it has minimised the risks associated with its operations is largely up to them, but the North Sea has developed a standard process (with associated tools and techniques) which all operators now follow. In short, it consists of:

1. Identifying potential hazards and the events they could lead to.

2. Identifying the consequences of such events should they occur, in terms of effects on humans, the environment, the asset, and the company reputation.

3. Identifying what can be done to prevent the event (preventative measures).

4.Identifying what can be done to mitigate the impact of the event, should it occur (mitigation measures).

5. How the company intends to manage the residual risks of their operations once 3 and 4 have been implemented.

This process focuses the minds of those charged with designing, building, and operating the installations to ensure the residual risks are ALARP, and can indeed be demonstrated to the satisfaction of anyone who may ask (e.g. regulatory bodies). I am heavily involved in this entire process as my day-job, and have been for years. I take the approach that if I find myself hauled in front of a court facing twenty to thirty years in an African prison for manslaughter, can I demonstrate that I did everything I could do minimise the risks associated with the installation? I am not exaggerating, I really do think this. In Nigeria I was responsible for signing off designs. Gulp.

By telling companies that they have to demonstrate their facilities and operations are as safe as they can be, and all potentially catastrophic scenarios have been thought of and addressed, it forces them to take responsibility for the complete design and operation. Moreover, it forces them to consider the installation as a whole, i.e. how the different systems interact with one another, and address the unique complexities of their particular situation.

The alternative system is one whereby clever people draw up a set of rules and regulations that must be followed, and if a company does then – in theory – the installation will be safe. This is called a prescriptive-based approach to safety. In effect it’s a giant box-ticking exercise, which involves little actual thinking on the part of the design engineers and allows them to shift responsibility to those who drafted the regulations if something goes wrong. As far as I am aware, this is how most industries are regulated: companies obtain a set of prescriptive rules and regulations and if they follow them to the letter, they are covered. Indeed, this is how the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) works, and this approach is applied to their own oilfields.

The shortcomings of the prescriptive-based approach are obvious, but a risk-based approach is more complicated and expensive to implement. However, the lessons from Piper Alpha might well be dusted off and re-learned in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. I highly doubt that the British building regulatory regime allowed banned cladding to be installed: I am reasonably certain that it was quite legal. However, they were clearly not suitable for the application, because nobody considered the cladding system as a whole as it was installed on that particular tower, and what might happen in the event of a fire. All they did was select a panel type that was approved by the regulations, comply with all the other regulations, and assume they were safe.

The problem with prescriptive regulations is that they cannot anticipate every scenario, and it only takes one unique application of a certain product or system to leave the whole thing prone to a catastrophe. Or course lessons will be learned from the Grenfell Tower fire and that particular gap will be closed, but others will remain so long as we insist on a prescriptive-based approach to safety. The irony is that all those people calling for companies to take greater responsibility for the works they carry out are likely to be the same people calling for greater regulation, which will inevitably be of the prescriptive type. The two demands are not compatible: either we tell companies to follow the regulations, or we tell them to proceed as they see fit but demonstrate to the regulators that they’ve done the job properly and take full responsibility if it later proves they haven’t.

My guess is we’ll end up with an unhealthy mess of both: companies told to follow regulations but also carry the can when those regulations prove to be inadequate, leading to increased prices, a lack of transparency, and yet more cosy partnerships and conflicts of interest between private businesses and those writing the regulations. None of this will make the public any safer.

Share