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The principle of minimum acceptable factors of safety has been used to assess the stability of embankment dams for decades. The commonly applied minimum acceptable factors of safety remain very similar to those recommended in the early 1970's, despite the development of new design tools and better understanding of material behaviour.
The purpose of factors of safety is to ensure reliability of the dam design and to account for uncertainties and variability of dam and foundation material parameters, uncertainties of design loads and limitations of the analysis method used. The impact of uncertainties and reliability of input values into stability analyses was recognised many decades ago, and the factor of safety was recommended depending on the loading conditions and the consequences of failure or unacceptable performance.
Interestingly, the minimum recommended factors of safety used today do not take into account the potential consequences of dam failure or the uncertainties in input values, and are based on the loading conditions only. Yet, several authors have demonstrated that a higher factor of safety does not necessarily result in a lower probability of failure, as the analysis also depends on the quality of investigations, testing, design and construction.
This paper summarises the history of the factor of safety principle in dam engineering, discusses the calculation of the factor of safety using commonly used analytical tools, demonstrates the impact of uncertainties using a case study and provides recommendations for potential improvements.