Probability of failure (PF) often appears alongside factor of safety (FS) in design acceptance criteria for rock slope, underground excavation and open pit mine designs. However, the design acceptance criteria generally provide no guidance relating to how PF should be calculated for homogeneous and heterogeneous rock masses, or what qualifies a ‘reasonable’ PF assessment for a given slope design. Observational and kinematic methods were widely used in the 1990s until advances in computing permitted the routine use of numerical modelling. In the 2000s and early 2010s, PF in numerical models was generally calculated using the point estimate method. More recently, some limit equilibrium analysis software offer statistical parameter inputs along with Monte-Carlo or Latin-Hypercube sampling methods to automatically calculate PF. Factors including rock type and density, weathering and alteration, intact rock strength, rock mass quality and shear strength, the location and orientation of geologic structure, shear strength of geologic structure and groundwater pore pressure influence the stability of rock slopes. Significant engineering and geological judgment, interpretation and data interpolation is usually applied in determining these factors and amalgamating them into a geotechnical model which can then be analysed. Most factors are estimated ‘approximately’ or with allowances for some variability rather than ‘exactly’. When it comes to numerical modelling, some of these factors are then treated deterministically (i.e. as exact values), while others have probabilistic inputs based on the user’s discretion and understanding of the problem being analysed. This paper discusses the importance of understanding the key aspects of slope design for homogeneous and heterogeneous rock masses and how they can be translated into reasonable PF assessments where the data permits. A case study from a large open pit gold mine in a complex geological setting in Western Australia is presented to illustrate how PF can be calculated using different methods and obtain markedly different results. Ultimately sound engineering judgement and logic is often required to decipher the true meaning and significance (if any) of some PF results.
Reinforced concrete bridges designed by code are intended to achieve target reliability levels adequate for the geographical environment where the code is applicable. Several methods can be used to estimate such reliability levels. Many of them require the establishment of an explicit limit state function (LSF). When such LSF is not available as a close-form expression, the simulation techniques are often employed. The simulation methods are computing intensive and time consuming. Note that if the reliability of real bridges designed by code is of interest, numerical schemes, the finite element method (FEM) or computational mechanics could be required. In these cases, it can be quite difficult (or impossible) to establish a close-form of the LSF, and the simulation techniques may be necessary to compute reliability levels. To overcome the need for a large number of simulations when no explicit LSF is available, the point estimate method (PEM) could be considered as an alternative. It has the advantage that only the probabilistic moments of the random variables are required. However, in the PEM, fitting of the resulting moments of the LSF to a probability density function (PDF) is needed. In the present study, a very simple alternative which allows the assessment of the reliability levels when no explicit LSF is available and without the need of extensive simulations is employed. The alternative includes the use of the PEM, and its applicability is shown by assessing reliability levels of reinforced concrete bridges in Mexico when a numerical scheme is required. Comparisons with results by using the Monte Carlo simulation (MCS) technique are included. To overcome the problem of approximating the probabilistic moments from the PEM to a PDF, a well-known distribution is employed. The approach mixes the PEM and other classic reliability method (first order reliability method, FORM). The results in the present study are in good agreement whit those computed with the MCS. Therefore, the alternative of mixing the reliability methods is a very valuable option to determine reliability levels when no close form of the LSF is available, or if numerical schemes, the FEM or computational mechanics are employed.