IABSE Workshop Helsinki 2017 (ePDF)

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IABSE Workshop Helsinki 2017
Ignorance, uncertainty and human errors in structural engineering
February 15-16, 2017, Helsinki, Finland





Ignorance, uncertainty and human errors in structural engineering (ePDF)

IABSE Workshop “Ignorance, Uncertainty and Human Errors in Structural Engineering” is the 5th edition of annual international engineering events by the organizers focusing to the fundamental aspects for making structures safe and functional. As continuation to the previous themes, the present edition addresses ignorance and human errors.

Over several centuries the viewpoint of structural engineers on structural safety has been largely mathematical – compute the resistance of a structure using some generally accepted method; deterministic or probabilistic; for given or assumed loads or actions. Other things that might have influence the safety has been ruled out as being considered responsibility of the other professionals.

Despite of all numerical computing power, surveillance routines and instrumentation we have today, our knowledge of hazards and our skills on putting them to loads and mathematical models is limited and uncertain. The robustness concept of structures and design; our key theme in the workshops 2013 and 2015; is one direction to augment the above approach. In it, one want to achieve resistance of structures also to unidentified and unknown actions; including implications of ignorance and human error; in a sense that failure is not disproportional to the failure it is caused by.

Robustness-based design is clearly not the limit where we could stretch our minds. Some prominent recent megaprojects worldwide have failed in terms of schedule, cost estimate, safety or functionality. Finland is no exception in this, and multiple year delays and budget exceedances of large projects are constantly in news. Provocatively, the biggest risk today in structural engineering is not an error in assessment or method; but that no structural assessment has been made at all. This could happen, e.g., due to overload of project information; rapid and frequent design changes; and interactive way of conducting the project where everybody wants to give his or her comment.

Problems in practical engineering work could often be categorised as human and organizational errors. Taking into account that almost every accident, including structural failures, involve human errors, our view to safety cannot be comprehensive unless we understand the human errors better.

Furthermore, our feel of safety in the context of typical accidents may be misleading, as after the accident humans do not react and behave as they are thought and planned to.

Finally, despite the increasing amount of information available, ignorance is something that may be envisaged to be more prominent in next decades. In the global business, research and education, not every expert is aware of specific conditions in every country or which are the actual professional skills of engineers contributing the project. Furthermore, the trend in university-level education has moved from technical matters to science creation, narrowing graduates’ focus and skills to solve practical problems. For a new structural engineer or researcher, it might be difficult to locate the important, proven and useful methods among voluminous design guidelines; thousands of research papers written on the topic; and varying media and advice found in on the Internet.