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In 1847 a train driver crossing Robert Stephenson's bridge over the River Dee noticed a 'sinking'sensation before five carriages and the girders crashed into the river below. The Royal Commission which was established to investigate the failure was dubbed - by no less a figure than Isambard Kingdom Brunel - 'the Commission for Stopping Further Improvements in Bridge Building'.

The causes and effects of this - and various other mishaps which haunt the history of construction - are described by Clive Richardson in this week's technical and practice section. Arguing that disasters have been essential triggers to improvements, both in technical knowledge and in legislation, Richardson pleads for a little more tolerance towards those who design innovative structures which turn out to be flawed.

Nowadays, of course, we are a little less sanguine about threats to human safety. It is no longer acceptable to view the odd accidental death as an occupational hazard and an inevitable cost of change. But modern society is also increasingly well-equipped to accommodate controlled experimentation. The combination of stringent building regulations, the threat of litigation and the spectre of public scrutiny (aside from basic human decency) are sufficient to persuade clients to cover the costs of combining innovation with minimal risk. Take the glazed roof/public promenade at Sunderland Glass Centre: the top layer of glass began to crack but additional layers below ensured that there was never any danger of anybody plunging through the roof, or of those inside the building being hit by falling glass.

If construction remains a risky business it is largely due to an unacceptably cavalier attitude towards safety on site.

Far more people are injured by slothfulness, sloppiness or downright stupidity than by the antics of adventurous professionals prepared to push the boundaries of design.

Perhaps we should be a little less quick to mock cracking glass, swaying bridges and leaking roofs. Reputations are more at risk than human lives. Development demands a spirit of adventure. And the only people who can be absolutely certain of safeguarding their reputation are those who resolutely play it safe.

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