Stephen Richardson, President of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), recommended to a House of Lords select committee held virtually on 10 March that systems thinking skills should be mandatory in engineering education for effective risk management.

The oil and gas expert and Emeritus Professor of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London was joined by nuclear expert Dame Sue Ion - an Honorary Fellow of IChemE and Honorary President at the National Skills Academy for Nuclear. They were invited to give evidence to the Risk Assessment and Risk Planning Committee regarding the resilience and risks within these sectors, as well as the challenges in developing and implementing risk assessment processes.

Their key point was the vital need to embed a systems thinking approach to new or existing system installations throughout their entire lifecycle – from design to decommission. Both emphasised these practices should be embedded from the start, in an engineer’s education and throughout their career via continuing professional development.

When asked to suggest a policy that the committee could recommend to the government, Richardson proposed making systems thinking mandatory within engineering education. Ion was in agreement with this approach and recommended ensuring systems thinking is applied at the highest levels of UK Government, particularly for those policymakers making decisions on the infrastructure required to establish robust energy systems for achieving net zero targets by 2050.

Among many topics in the session, Richardson and Ion discussed the operational risks posed by humans and technology, the use of emerging technologies to successfully manage risk, as well as the importance of educating the public on perceived and actual risk through evidence-based promotion – particularly for nuclear radiation risk. They shared risk management lessons learned from high profile incidents, such as the Fukushima nuclear power plant failure in Japan, the Piper Alpha oil and gas platform explosion in the UK, and the Grenfell Tower fire, UK.

Richardson and Ion also explained that the critical skills and expertise of professionally qualified engineers, as well as cross-sector experience-sharing to encourage diversity of thinking and good practice, are key to managing risk and investigating incidents in these sectors.

Richardson was invited to give evidence as the committee recognised his vast experience following over 40 years’ experience in teaching and investigating safety incidents in oil and gas. Ion’s expertise was sought having spent 30 years in the nuclear sector before being asked to join the Independent Advisory Panel of the Office for Nuclear Regulation, the body responsible for providing independent advice to the UK Government.

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