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7 comments

Paying the Price: When Safety Costs Too Much

Posted March 06, 2012 9:19 AM by cheme_wordsmithy
Pathfinder Tags: cost design ethics safety

In this capitalist/individualist society, how can engineers reconcile the conflicts that exist between cost and safety?

It may be a misconception to say that making something safer automatically increases its cost. In reality, failures resulting from neglecting safety can often be much more expensive than the preventative measures would have been. Here is where the free market and society live in harmony; where the company's interests are directly in-line with the customer's.

But in many cases, there are direct conflicts between the financial interests of a company and the public interest. In this tug-of-war, the company pulls towards potential profit while the public pulls towards the best possible product (safe, reliable, and affordable). Often engineers are caught in the middle of this struggle.

The Engineer - A Businessman and a Scholar

Engineers themselves are often as much businessmen as they are scientists. They bridge the gap between the lab and the real world. In other words, effectiveness is as much dependent on cost as it is on technical feasibility. David Noble, in America By Design, says this:

"From the outset, therefore, the engineer was at the service of capital and, not surprisingly, its laws were to him as natural as the laws of science. If some political economists drew a distinction between technology and capitalism, that distinction collapsed in the person of the engineer and in his work, engineering."

(<--Credit: Northridgesigmas)

Engineers thus have a truly unique perspective on important technical decisions regarding cost. While an entrepreneur may only see dollar signs and a scientist may only see product performance, an engineer should see both.

Does this mean that the engineer's opinion on design decisions should carry the most weight? Whether it should or not, in the hierarchy of a company it often doesn't. Managers, accountants, and CEOs have the final say regarding costs- sometimes to the detriment of a product's safety or performance.

Company structure also often puts added pressure on the engineer to make a decision where profit is placed above performance or safety. Resisting this pressure is often not in the self-interest of the engineer, since their own well-being (e.g. their job or their perceived loyalty to the company) may be at stake.

The classic example: The Titanic (Image Credit: Titanicrecount). As mentioned in a comment in last week's discussion, this ship was built in a way in which the "watertight" compartments were only watertight horizontally. They were shortchanged vertically because of a financial decision, apparently in which an accountant overruled an engineer. Fixing this design flaw could have (at the least) added hours to the ship's life and allowed other boats to arrive in time to save countless lives.

People Are More than Numbers

From a utilitarian standpoint, every problem can be broken down into a cost-benefit analysis (CBA). But when it comes to decisions regarding people's safety and respect, it is unfair and irresponsible to play a numbers game. These decisions require assumptions and judgments outside of "straight science" in order to make a responsible decision. And it is impossible to put a price on the lives and rights of people.

A classic example of failed utilitarian decision-making is the case of the Ford Pinto (Image Credit: psu.edu). The Ford Motor Company had designed a car, the Pinto (seen right), with a faulty gas tank. Surprisingly, the design flaw was known before full-scale production, but the fix was not made. Apparently, a CBA told the company they would spend more money adding the safety fix ($11/car, $137 million total) than paying off the lawsuits from the estimated "casualties" (180 estimated deaths, $49.5 million in lawsuits).

This poor decision led to the death of hundreds of people. The cost of just one lawsuit against the company for its gross negligence was $128 million.

Coming to Resolution

In the end, engineers and managers must be willing to make responsible decisions regarding safety issues and costs. It is wasteful and not good business to unnecessarily over-engineer a product, but neither is it good to skimp-out to save a dime.

Often the best way to make these decisions is to look at past designs. Those that have been successful and safe are likely good examples to follow. When new territory is encountered, engineers should use their best judgment to make prudent decisions and be honest about what they do not know. Both engineers and corporate/project leaders should promote open communication and be looking to benefit the customer, not just the company.

Sources:

Causes and Effects of the Rapid Sinking of the Titanic

Engineering , Ethics and Sustainable Development

Engineering Ethics

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#1

Re: Paying the Price: When Safety Costs Too Much

03/06/2012 4:22 PM

(Deleted; error in the link I tried to attach.)

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#2

Re: Paying the Price: When Safety Costs Too Much

03/07/2012 4:22 AM

I take it the author is not a member of an engineering institution? There is no mention made of a professional engineer's responsibility to abide by their institution's Code of Conduct.

The Code of Conduct issued by these august bodies covers just such situations - it is the duty of a professional engineer to raise relevant points and to stick to their considered opinion.

I'm sure all of the UK institutions have similar documents, here is that of the The Institution of Mechanical Engineers. I'm guessing those overseas (to me) also embody the same ideas and ideals.

And thanks for the pictures. Whilst I'd heard of the Pinto fuel tank episode, I hadn't realised GM stole the body shape for what was sold in the UK as the Vauxhall Chevette...ah! the Shove-it! I'm off to wallow in nostalgia for a bit....

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Paying the Price: When Safety Costs Too Much

03/07/2012 8:08 AM

Yes, very true, thanks for mentioning that. The engineer's institution's Code of Conduct or Code of Ethics is important to abide by, as is the more general NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers. I am a member of AIChe, albeit currently not a very active one.

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#4

Re: Paying the Price: When Safety Costs Too Much

03/07/2012 2:45 PM

What are the professional engineering organizations and who licenses engineers?

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#6
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Re: Paying the Price: When Safety Costs Too Much

03/09/2012 7:48 AM

It varies from country to country.

In the UK, the Engineering Council monitors and assesses the professional institutions such as Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Institution of Engineering and Technology, Institution of Civil Engineers, Institution of Chemical Engineers etc etc

Each Institution accredits those of its members who have demonstrated that they have reached sufficent standard as Engineering Technicians (EngTech), Incorporated Engineers (IEng), Chartered Engineers (CEng) or Fellows. The levels of knowledge and competence is set be the Engineering Council in the UK-SPEC, each Institution determines what that means in its own discipline.

"Engineer" is not a protected term in the UK.

Things are similar in continental Europe, except that engineers have more status there, particularly in Germany.

In the US, each state registers engineers and I don't think cross border is recognised. I have heard that a Professional Engineer exam has to be taken. Perhaps one of our American cousins can give more detail?

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#5

Re: Paying the Price: When Safety Costs Too Much

03/07/2012 2:53 PM

Sometimes the real cost isn't apparent until too late. Sometimes, the problem is a failure of imagination. What if? What if we had known how dangerous it was to test the first Apollo spacecraft with a 100% oxygen atmosphere while on the ground with an additional 5 PSI added.

Do you cook with gas? Do you know what gas smells like? Natural gas used for cooking is methane. Most of the gas used for cooking comes from underground wells. Methane is also produced naturally during the digestion of food in animals. The EPA estimates that the methane released into the air from agriculture in 2010, equaled over 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. But, have you ever been around a, cow, pig, sheep, or even man whose flatulence smells like the gas that burns in your stove? No matter what they eat, the gas doesn't smell like that. In the natural gas coming from your stove, what you are actually smelling is an additive named mercaptan. It's added to make leaks of natural gas easier to detect. When and why did they start putting mercaptan in natural gas? The answer comes from a small town deep in east Texas. It is known as the New London School Explosion. The decision that led to the tragedy was made by people who couldn't or didn't imagine the full extent of the damage that could be caused by their decision. It has been described as "the worst catastrophe to take place in a U.S. school building", and the third deadliest disaster in the history of Texas. Over 295 teachers and students were killed in a massive explosion that leveled the two story brick school building. The first through fourth grade students had been released early, and the PTA was meeting in the gym, about 100 feet away. Some time between 3:05 and 3:20PM, a spark in the woodshop set off the explosion.

News of the disaster traveled worldwide. It was the subject of a newsreel (link below). Walter Cronkite covered the story as a new reporter for United Press. Although Cronkite went on to cover World War II and the Nuremberg trials, he was quoted as saying decades later, "I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for a story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it." The then Chancellor of Germany, Adolph Hitler, sent a telegram expressing his regrets (a copy is in the New London Museum).

March 18, 2012 will be the seventy fifth anniversary of the disaster.

I grew up in New London. My father helped build the New London Museum. I will be happy to talk to anyone about the disaster and growing up there. Below are links to some of the many web pages dedicated to the disaster.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqCRNtZ12mo

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_London_School_explosion

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#7

Re: Paying the Price: When Safety Costs Too Much

03/09/2012 6:12 PM

A friend of mine placed a large "FLAMMABLE" placard across the back end of their Pinto.

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