The Royal Academy of Engineering has just published a report, Accidents and Agenda, that highlights the UK’s relatively low incidence of major industrial and transport accidents (excluding road transport) but examines improvements to the established culture that can be made if the demands of the future are to be met.

Our working group looked at seven industrial sectors: aviation, rail, chemical, construction, marine, nuclear and offshore oil and gas, commissioning individual reports by experts in each sector. It questioned, but ultimately endorsed, the UK’s current post-accident processes and sees no need for a radical change. It does, however, recommend that the Attorney General consider how the process of deciding whether to prosecute and whether the police or another agency should lead a particular accident investigation could be made faster and more transparently. As a default before decisions are taken on prosecutions we recommend that the HSE, or the appropriate Accident Investigation Branch, should be the lead investigative agency in all major accident situations. The primary aim of any post-accident investigation must be to allow accidents with similar causes to be prevented in the future and this starts with an objective and thorough investigation.

The current UK accident rate is not a given or stable state. The increasing use of software to control plants and equipment makes understanding the associated risks of departures from the normal more difficult. Systems may behave unexpectedly when stressed in certain ways or operators may do things unintentionally that create instability. Meeting these challenges requires better education.

It used to be almost sufficient for engineers to receive one burst of formal education and then to rely on experience – but this is no longer the case. Experience still has its own value but designing, applying and managing complex computer control systems require focused education. We believe that all engineers who aspire to professional qualifications should receive formal safety management and accident prevention training before they qualify plus formal education in the safety aspects of particular systems before they are expected to use them operationally.

The working group felt that the acid test is whether we prevent future accidents by applying what we have learnt. In the major incident area there is evidence that we do. In aviation a constant stream of innovations traces much of its background to accidents around the world. The Piper Alpha disaster and the subsequent public inquiry brought fundamental changes to the offshore oil and gas industry. However, a vast amount of indifference to learning and improvement still persists. Accidents happen time and again for reasons that we have already seen explained and understood. Better approaches to learning from the misfortunes of others are needed, from both actual accidents and from incidents that had safe outcomes - but might not have done. Alongside this we need to improve the culture of safety in companies and learn more generally that short cuts in safety are dangerous, expensive and bad for business.

Download the report (906.42 KB)

Download the full sector reports (493.80 KB)

Notes for editors

  1. Accidents and Agendas was compiled by an Academy working group comprised of:

    Mr Trevor Truman OBE FREng (Chairman) – Director, SEA (Group) Ltd (non-exec)
    Professor Douglas Faulkner FREng – Emeritus Professor of Naval Architecture & Ocean Engineering, University of Glasgow
    Dr Paul A. Frieze – Managing Director, PAFA Consulting Engineers
    Mr Norman Haste OBE FREng – Chairman Severn River Crossing PLC
    Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Hill KBE FREng – Independent Director of British Energy plc and Chairman of the Safety, Health and Environment Committee (1999-2003)
    Mr Jeffrey Jupp FREng – Technical Director, Airbus UK (retired 2001); Visiting Professor Bath University; Chairman, Environment, Safety and Security WG - UK Aviation Innovation and Growth Team
    Professor Trevor Kletz OBE FREng – Visiting Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Loughborough University and Adjunct Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, Texas A&M University
    Professor Helen Muir – Professor of Aerospace Psychology and Director of the Cranfield Institute for Safety Risk and Reliability at Cranfield University
    Professor David Newland FREng – Independent consultant and Emeritus Professor of Engineering, Cambridge University
    Mr Richard Snell FREng – Senior Advisor Structural and Civil Engineering BP Exploration
    Dr Peter Watson FREng – Formerly, Chairman, AEA Technology plc
    John Uff QC, FREng – Emeritus Professor of Engineering Law, King College, London, Arbitrator and Barrister

    The work of the group has been materially assisted by other advice and we should like to mention particularly:
    Mr Ken Smart – Chief Inspector, Air Accident Investigation Branch
    Mr Timothy Walker – Director General of the Health and Safety Executive
    Sir Alan Muir Wood FREng FRS – Consultant, Halcrow Group
    Professor Nick Pidgeon – Director Centre for Environmental Risk, University of East Anglia
    Mr Philip Smedley – Director, Structural Engineering, PAFA Consulting Engineers
  2. The Academy has taken a keen interest in matters of public and industrial safety, in particular through its statement on the safety of Ro-Ro ferries in 1995 and its then President’s report to the government on rail safety systems in 2000 following the Ladbroke Grove train crash.