ROI of Safety Management in the Structural/Civil Engineering World, Looking at the Heathrow Airport Tunnel Collapse in London

The 1994 collapse of a tunnel at Heathrow Airport in London, put lives at risk and caused the cancellation of hundreds of flights. In the court case that followed it was determined that the degree of risk was extended outside of proprietary control, and that the extent and duration of the breach was inconsistent with the schedule of repairs for the features in poor condition. Evidence points to the fact that return on investment (ROI) in civil engineering is a consequence to more allocations toward hazard testing. Was the incident result of unintentional negligence due to ‘cost cutting’ measures in construction?

When the construction company, Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Services Ltd, was fined a record £1.2 million in the 1999 court ruling, remedies were calculated according to what British judicial opinion cited as “one of the worst civil engineering disasters” in the country’s engineering record in the past 25 years. Joint and severe liability also cost Austrian engineering consultancy, Geoconsult, compensatory remedies of £500,000 for failing safety assurance of the public and workers. Trial costs to the firms were a combined £100,000. Court documents indicate that the firms fell ‘seriously short’ of the appropriate standard. It was a matter of chance that no death or any serious injury had resulted from the collapse.

Strict liability exposed the construction firm to serious losses. This was despite government responsibility to the public infrastructure and decisions on contract. In order to ensure ROI, risk measures taken in the wake of events subsequent to the implosion of the tunnel while Heathrow Express was under construction addressed the weak vaulting and buttress of the tunnel which had been corroded by smog. In the aftermath of the collapse, repairs to Heathrow Airport totaled £150m – three times the original construction cost.

Engineering lessons learned from this accident point to construction budget constraints in addition to the oversight of key structural engineering elements and overall planning of the airport tunnel. Other factors relevant to this case point to maintenance and lack of regulatory compliance in audits of the site. What ensued when the Tunnel collapsed resulted in an enormous crater cracked between the airport’s two runways; dragging car parks and swaying buildings. For the construction firms that paid the price, poor calculation of ROI to risk ratio emerged as a critical element in strategic planning. Evidence that cost cutting was one primary cause-in-fact found during reconstruction of the tunnel clarified that allocations to risk and safety assessment would salvage returns.

This is a guest post submitted by Ally Silva. Ally works with AMG, Inc., a full-service engineering consulting firm that supports clients in the agricultural commodities, food/beverage, and biotechnology industries. AMG supports clients with everything from piping engineering design to foundation design all while utilizing safe structural engineering practices. Ally prides herself on sharing valuable insight regarding the engineering services industry and is happy to contribute!

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