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On Ethics and Engineering Disasters

Posted February 28, 2012 9:55 AM by cheme_wordsmithy

It's not a stretch to say that the majority of engineering-related disasters are not intentional - engineers and their managers/companies do not intentionally make unsafe products. But that doesn't mean these professionals are always acting in the best interest of society, or are following ethical engineering practices.

Cause-Analysis

A study done by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology analyzed 800 cases of structural failure in which 504 people died, 592 were injured, and millions of dollars in damage was done. When engineers were at fault in these disasters, the causes of failure were classified as follows:

Insufficient knowledge - 36%

Underestimation of influence - 16%

Ignorance, carelessness, negligence - 14%

Forgetfulness, error - 13%

Relying upon others without sufficient control - 9%

Objectively unknown situation - 7%

Inaccurate or nonspecific definition of responsibilities - 1%

Choice of bad quality - 1%

Other - 3%

These results show that the majority of failures happen as a result (at least in part) of a lack of knowledge on the subject. But even in the case of knowledge insufficiencies, good ethical practices sometimes make the most difference.

Ethics - The Unwritten Standards

Engineers as professionals have a responsibility to their clients, their company, and society to design and build safe and reliable products. This many times means doing more than just following the rules. Laws are designed to prevent malicious intent and ensure that the minimum safety requirements are followed, but they are usually not specific enough to account for every variable of a particular design for a particular industry. And they rightly shouldn't be, as laws and requirements can restrict the freedom and creativity of the engineer and the innovator.

(<--Credit: Tribune Media Services, Inc.)

But as professionals, this means engineers must take responsibility for the projects they work on, and must be willing to do the right thing in instances where it may not be the cheapest or easiest way. This includes avoiding conflicts of interest, being honest about your level of knowledge and area(s) of expertise, having sufficient dialogue and communication during the design process, and being willing to learn from and teach others (especially younger engineers).

Some Examples

Often outside politics, problematic work-cultures, bad management, and group-think communication are involved in engineering failure. Some disasters that involved ethical issues such as these (in addition to technical problems) include Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Therac-25, Tay Bridge, and Space Shuttle Challenger. Any of those names sound familiar?

One takeaway, then, is that all technical professionals should strive to promote ethical practices in the workplace - even those without leadership roles. The difficulty is in creating a workplace culture where people do not feel threatened to have a voice and speak their concerns. But communication is vital for identifying and fleshing out problems, especially those that aren't related to simple miscalculations or unknowns.

Source:

SUNY Stony Brook - Engineering Disasters and Learning From Failure

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#1

Re: On Ethics and Engineering Disasters

02/29/2012 5:22 AM

Sometimes the best engineers are over ruled by bean counters.

Example:The Titanic.

The engineer originally designed the water tight doors and compartment walls to go all the way to the ceiling, but an accountant decided it would cost too much, so he forced the engineer to stop them a few feet short of the top."The water will never get that deep!".

We all know what happened.

The engineer was on board when it sank, and made no attempt to board a lifeboat, as he considered the sinking to be his fault.

Moral of the story is easy to decipher.

'nuff said.

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#2

Re: On Ethics and Engineering Disasters

02/29/2012 9:40 AM

John Maxwell wrote a book called "Business Ethics" and in it stated that there shouldn't be anything such as "ethics" relegated to business. Ethics and integrity should be to all parts of our lives. If not, the lines blur and the result is a poor product whether it be intellectual or material based.

We are called to a high standard of thinking and behavior based upon principles, not whether something or a factor is expedient to save money, cut corners, to treat someone badly or if pressure is brought to bear by a "superior" who doesn't have a high level of integrity.

When we have done things to the best of our abilities and the resources we have access to, the product or plan can be moved on to the next level of inspection, testing or implementation.

The level of risk in the use of the product/s also determines the level of thoroughness in the planning and excecution of the plan.

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#3

Re: On Ethics and Engineering Disasters

02/29/2012 3:20 PM

In full agreement with all that's been said thus far.

Re: "Ethics and integrity should be to all parts of our lives. If not, the lines blur and the result is a poor product whether it be intellectual or material based" ... OR, a product might turn-out to be great, but at WHAT cost...? (i.e., suicides at iPhone phactory (sic), children losing childhood in Nike sweatshops, etc).

On a much LIGHTER note :

Who , in REAL life , could compete with the *great* Dan Aykroyd (as "Irwin Mainway"), extolling the virtues of and defending the safety of his "Bag-o-Glass" toy...!

. . . .

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#4

Re: On Ethics and Engineering Disasters

02/29/2012 6:57 PM

These clever pronunciations from the ivory towers turn my stomach. I am a retired, licensed professional engineer.

In the case of people not knowing enough; it's true, it does happen. The problem is that these people don't know that they don't know enough, if they did, then their knowledge would not be deficient, would it now?

There are cases where the state of the art does not know enough at the time of the design. If the Gothic cathedrals of Europe are examined, it will be seen that some of the buttresses have been modified, several times, that is because they were pushing the envelope, they were state of the art and you can see the state of the art progressing with experience of failure. In these cases the failures were found before the result was tragedy.

Who had heard of metal fatigue until the de Havilland Comet crashed into the Mediterranean?

The scaffolding/work platform for a cooling tower stripped off, killing 51 construction workers. The platform moved up as the walls grew. the concrete bucket was pulled up on a wire rope. The crew was familiar with the scaffolding and didn't need the drawings. They found a way to run the bucket up at much higher speed so, of course the did so. They replaced some worn bolts with new ones, but the new ones were regular strength and the old were high strength. In theory this was preventable, but given the standard operating procedure, I don't see how. If they asked the original design engineer about either of these changes, he would have said no. But they never ask, they think the design guys are too conservative, besides, he might not work there any more.

After the collapse of the Hyatt Regency Hotel walkway, many wanted state laws changed to require the EOR to be involved, to have say over the project to completion. The construction companies "persuaded" the politicians to not make the changes to the state laws.

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#6
In reply to #4

Re: On Ethics and Engineering Disasters

08/12/2016 6:18 PM

Following on that thread, it's still distressing to me that the fault for the collapse of the I-95 bridge was placed on the original design engineers who did the design some 50 years prior, according to the Codes in force at that time. (It was designed for a 50-year life.) However, the (bureaucrats and bean-counters) who allowed the construction contractor to conveniently store construction materials on the bridge, and then leave it there. And then, (they) allowed even more material to be stored on top of materials already there, thereby accelerating the fatigue even more. (The bridge did reach it's 50-year design life, but just barely...). The bureaucrat(s) got off without so much as a wrist-slap and the engineer(s) were made to (take the fall) because they weren't still alive 50 years later to defend themselves... It was a real (triumph of accountability)...

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#7
In reply to #6

Re: On Ethics and Engineering Disasters

08/17/2016 12:31 PM

Clarification: ''It was a real (triumph of accountability)...'' is intended to be read with extreme sarcasm...

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#5

Re: On Ethics and Engineering Disasters

03/01/2012 10:21 AM

Good comments, passingontogreen,

In the case of people not knowing enough; it's true, it does happen. The problem is that these people don't know that they don't know enough, if they did, then their knowledge would not be deficient, would it now? There are cases where the state of the art does not know enough at the time of the design.

That's why there are different layers of oversight from different specialties and also an understanding that we know what we know and no more. That is the area where character and integrity come into play. One with high integrity will take all the necessary steps available in order to provide a product or service that is the best possible.

Even with the best of intentions failures will still occur because there are many variables in the design, production and use of products. At that point personal responsibility and accountability comes into play, rather than looking for someone with deep pockets to suck dry and destroy.

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