Before I launch into another one of my musings (rants ?) - My very best wishes to you all for a great 2007 both in excellent engineering and naturally in your personal life. I had a magnificent break trawling through the rapidly dwindling African wilderness with my family, albeit on the one occasion being chased by a large amorous ostrich.

One of my readers (perhaps, more cautious than me), sent me an irritable note blaming for encouraging a culture of neglecting safety when the Montreal bridge collapsed a few months ago, when I remarked that everyone should “Be foolish more often in engineering”– really encouraging innovation. I am quite obsessed by safety and believe we should put this at the top of our priorities as engineers and technical professionals in everything we do. I know some of the following will seem to be patronising to some of you - who have far more experience with safety than I have. It is not intended to be so.

I have often thought that dealing with safety issues is  a cultural thing. I remember a plane being grounded in some Aussie Outback airfield despite one of the passengers, a highflying CEO, raging about how he needed to get back for an urgent meeting in Sydney. The flight mechanic was unmoved by the threats and ravings of the CEO. It wasn’t leaving until he had replaced a part which he suspected had a problem and would compromise safety. In poorer countries, this resistance to power and money, may not be as easy to accomplish and the attention to safety may not be as rigorous as it should be.

Without trying to be at all nasty, when I climb on board some of these rather suspicious sounding airlines (quaintly named “Cheap Fly Now”), I get very twitchy about the safety culture. Esp. when I discover the dark stain in the aisle is actually sticky hydraulic fluid, as I noticed late last year. On the other hand, I used to believe that the culture of safety was quite strong in the western world but have come to realize that this is not necessarily the case. The commentary (from the official investigation) on the ghastly Columbia shuttle catastrophe is quite damning: ‘NASA’s habit of relaxing safety standards to meet financial and time constraints set the stage for the Feb. 1 loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its seven astronauts. They warned that the agency’s “broken safety culture” would lead to tragedy again unless fundamental changes are made’.  And later: ‘Nobody in the NASA management chain ever asked any tough questions about the justification for these feel-good fantasies.The shocking flaw was just another of the most dangerous of safety delusions — that in the absence of contrary indicators, it is permissible to assume that a critical system is safe, even if it hasn’t been proved so by rigorous testing.' Obviously this is DEFINITELY not the case.

I dread being held responsible as a professional engineer for a breach of safety where someone gets hurt or even worse - killed. So vigilance is required at all times even when you are under enormous work pressure to deliver results to some impossible deadline.

As Alan Shepherd, a famous astronaut said: “It is a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one’s safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract”.

As professionals, we need to avoid this situation happening at all costs.