As projects and technology grow more complex, engineers need to apply their analytical skills to minimise harmful risks. create caught up with risk specialists to explore the challenges ahead.
When asked to define risk, Geoff Hurst joined The Blacklist’s Raymond Reddington in quoting business magnate Warren Buffett: “Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing”.
“The technological world is evolving rapidly. Humans are becoming more and more reliant on technological designs to do amazing things,” Hurst explained.
Hurst is the National President of the Engineers Australia Risk Engineering Society, and has several decades of experience as a risk specialist. He said every engineer has an ethical obligation to make sure they do no harm and apply their skills for the “good of humankind”.
He added that many people do not understand how complex technologies work, and engineers are often called upon to make sure they are safe. What’s more, the technology, materials and design practices used in devices and infrastructure can have significant ethical and social impacts.
“Compliance with standards is a bare minimum. As professionals there is an obligation to consider good practice. If the risk is still unacceptable, we have an ethical obligation to call it out and find a better way,” Hurst said.
In order to make risk engineering principles and best practice accessible to engineers and the wider community, Hurst and other risk specialists have been working on a Risk Engineering Body of Knowledge (REBOK), which is due to be officially launched on 29 July.
“It’s going to be a tool in their toolbox to gain a better understanding of the emerging risk issues and the key things to look out for,” said Gaye Francis, a due diligence engineer who chairs the REBOK Steering Committee.
Dealing with the downside
Risk is a two-sided coin. For example, the business world is interested in “upside” risk – taking a financial punt that could pay off in either a small or large return.
For engineers, the most pressing concern is “downside” risk, which can lead to a system not performing as designed, or causing budget blowout, harm to people or the environment, legal action – or in the worst case, death.
Francis and Hurst said that dealing with downside risk is part of every engineer’s role.
“Engineers usually get involved after the downside risk is identified and we are required to provide the solution,” Hurst explained, adding that innovative solutions to downside risks can give engineers the opportunity to enhance a project.
But tackling risk isn’t all about technical solutions. According to Hurst, dealing with people and organisations is far more complex. One organisational issue can be a “blind” reliance on risk registers and integrated risk management processes that don’t capture the complex nature of engineering design.
“With engineering work becoming more and more complex with the involvement of intelligent control systems, the unbelievable can emerge and contribute to failures or losses that cannot be fathomed,” Hurst said, adding that engineering systems should be designed to reduce risk so far as is reasonably practicable.
Part of every type of engineering
Because risk is a part of every engineering discipline, risk engineers come from “all walks of life”, Hurst said.
Hurst has a mechanical engineering degree, and worked as a project engineer in the construction machinery and chemical manufacturing industries before he decided to specialise in risk. As a risk specialist, Hurst said he has helped people in “just about every other industry sector”.
Francis had a more direct path into the field. After graduating as a chemical engineer, she completed a month of work experience at the R2A due diligence engineering consultancy – and stayed for 25 years. Now a director of R2A, Francis said her career has taken her to some interesting places.
“There’s not many jobs that you get to climb up a ship, go into an underground mine, and work on a big project all within a two-year period,” she said, adding that she enjoys making people’s jobs easier and safer.
Francis said risk is now being incorporated into all engineering disciplines, and engineers should consider risk in the context of particular projects and situations, rather than in isolation. She added that in terms of tools, engineers should choose “horses for courses”.
“There are a lot of risk tools and techniques out there, and you need an understanding of the benefits and weaknesses of those tools. It’s not a one size-fits-all, tick-boxes exercise,” Francis explained.
Hurst agreed that risk knowledge is a requirement for all engineers, and setting high engineering expectations will help the profession to over-deliver on community expectations.
“Society is expecting absolute safety (zero risk) from the engineer and expects punitive action if [their designs] cause loss or distress,” he said.
“The challenge is for the profession to deal with social issues in a language that can be understood.”