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30 years of the Hazards Forum

Inception

The 1970s and 1980s were marked by a number of natural and human-made disasters which raised questions about the preparedness of national governments to prevent or mitigate their effects.

For example, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 was a serious and wide-ranging catastrophe, rated 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, whose effects are still being felt.

It raised important questions about the ways in which corporate management and government should respond to nuclear disaster.

Similar concerns were raised by the 1980 Mount St Helens volcano explosion in Washington State which removed over 1000ft from its height and devastated a wide area.

The Bhopal Gas Cloud disaster of 1984 killed several thousand people and left the affected population without compensation or support. Here again issues of corporate responsibility and national governance arose.

These events together with those nearer home such as the Flixborough Chemical Plant disaster of 1974, The Kings Cross underground fire of 1987 and the Zeebrugge Ferry disaster of 1987 all raised issues of preparedness, assessment, mitigation and governance.

Against the same background the United Nations designated the period 1990 to 2000 as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction and called on member nations to form national committees for natural hazard reduction.

This process began after Dr Frank Press, President of the US Academy of Sciences, had called for such a decade in a speech to the American Earthquake Society in 1984. It was in this context that the Hazards Forum was established.

In his 1988 Presidential Address to the Institution of Civil Engineers, Dr Alastair Paterson CBE FREng gave examples of a number of disasters and discussed the role of the engineer in hazard mitigation. He commented:

“One element that each of these hazards has in common is the technology for the mitigation of their effects lies within the province of the civil engineer, who can hope to contribute directly to the reduction of the consequences of these hazards.”

On the United Nations call for the formation of national committees for natural hazard reduction Dr Paterson said that the Institution of Civil Engineers had taken the initiative in the formation of such a committee for the UK and preliminary talks had already been held with interested parties. However, he had reservations about the prudence of this development having regard to the overlap between natural and human-made hazards. He said that at the first meeting of the new body it was intended to:

“consider whether a Hazards Forum might not be a better concept, giving consideration both to natural and man-made hazards”.

And so, in 1989 the Hazards Forum was formed to encourage joined-up approaches to the mitigation of natural and human-made hazards. The founding partners were the Institution of Civil Engineers in association with the Mechanical, Electrical and Chemical Engineers.

On 8th June 1995 the Hazards Forum was registered with the Charity Commission as an
unincorporated association, registered charity number 1047047, with the charitable objects: for the public benefit to mitigate and reduce hazards and disasters both man-made and natural.

Key activities and achievements

Since its inception in 1989 the Hazards Forum has undertaken a range of activities in delivering its chartable objects. Its core activity has been, and continues to be, meetings with eminent speakers on a range of topics aligned to its charitable objects. In the 1990’s the Hazards Forum hosted conferences and symposiums to adopt a more proactive stance in engaging with the wider public beyond the traditional confines. It was during the 90’s that an annual lecture was held along with discussion dinners – these operated under the Chatham House Rule and aimed to bring together senior people from different backgrounds to discuss the topic of the day.

Since 1999 the Hazards Forum programme has been largely directed to evening meetings.

These have broadly adopted a format of three speakers personally invited to give short presentations followed by adequate time for questions and discussions. The evening meetings are followed by a networking reception which often proves to be popular with meeting attendees.

A wide range of subjects have been covered at these meetings and records are captured in newsletters, many of which are available on the Hazards Forum’s website: https://hazardsforum.org.uk. The first of these newsletters was published and circulated to members in 1993 and over 100 editions have since been published.

The evening meeting programme and the newsletters have thus become a permanent and successful feature of Forum work as a means of bringing the issues before key decision makers, who may or may not be engineers.

Two books have been produced under the aegis of the Hazards Forum: Safety by Design – an
Engineer’s Responsibility for Safety (1996) and Safety Related Systems – Guidance for Engineers
(1995 revised 2002). The first was written by a team of experts selected by Professor Sue Cox, who was Professor of Health and Safety Management at the University of Loughborough, and the second by Professor Philip Bennett. Copies of these publications were sold until 2008 when they were judged to be insufficiently up to date.

Over its 31-year history the Hazards Forum has maintained strong links with other bodies, most
notably its founding engineering bodies, the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee.

Looking to the future

Since 2006 the World Economic Forum has produced a Global Risks Report focussing on global
trends and risks. This macro perspective indicates a different world to 30 years ago and one in
which environmental and geo-political risks are at the fore. These reports further reveal the
interconnections between trends and risks. For example, and albeit simplistically, climatic change may trigger a water crisis which in turn may lead to negative impact on crop yields, as this impacts livelihoods so the potential for discontentment and unrest may rise.

The 2019 report highlights the following key concerns:

  • Geo-political and geo economic tensions: growing nationalism has impacted collective
    progress on global challenges;
  • Environmental risks: features highly in top 5 risks by likelihood and by impact;
  • Technological vulnerabilities: data breaches, hardware weaknesses and AI potential to
    engineer more potent cyber-attack, presenting impact for critical infrastructure;
  • Biological threats: changes in how we live have increased the risk of a devastating outbreak occurring naturally; new biotechnology promises great advances but brings with it significant and even daunting requirements for oversight and control;
  • Rising sea levels: urbanisation concentrates people in areas of potential damage and exacerbates risks by destroying natural resources of resilience;
  • Mental health: anxiety and unhappiness are evident; some 700 million people worldwide are affected; declining psychological and emotional wellbeing also impacts social cohesion.

Top five global risks by likelihood:

  • Extreme weather events;
  • Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaption;
  • Natural disasters;
  • Data fraud or theft;
  • Cyber-attack.

Top five global risks by impact:

  • Weapons of mass destruction;
  • Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaption;
  • Extreme weather events;
  • Water crises;
  • Natural disasters.

And yet as we move into 2020 facing a pandemic not seen for over 100 years with its global lockdown, unprecedented economic impact, and devastating and tragic loss of life, it is, perhaps with a degree of hindsight, notable that whilst the spread of infectious disease was highlighted as a key concern in the 2019 report, it did not feature in the top five global risks by likelihood or impact.

Looking forward to our next decade we have been thinking hard about the place of the Hazards Forum in a world where the smart phone is part of the human form and every unknown is a ‘google’ away.

We cannot and should not lose the opportunity for interdisciplinary debate on these global challenges and issues, building partnerships and alliances, and breaking down thought-silos in risk mitigation and reduction.

We have been reflecting on our impact and value and we recognise there is more we can do to turn outputs into outcomes by extracting value from our significant body of knowledge.

We have worked hard to develop a new strategy to 2025 which will be launched in the coming months.

The Hazards Forum membership comprises of engineering bodies, public sector bodies, corporates, and individual affiliates which it relies upon for its source of income to enable it to continue to deliver upon its charitable objects. The Board of Trustees are grateful for their contribution and on-going commitment.

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