on August 20th, 2013

Dear Colleagues,

I am not suggesting that, as an engineering professional, you get put to death through negligence in your design or maintenance. But the old Code of Hammurabi stated 5000 years ago, that ‘If a builder builds a house and the house collapses and causes the death of the owner, that builder shall be put to death’.

Certainly, the Romans were also quite ruthless with execution of engineers who failed in the adequate construction of viaducts and bridges. Penalties are perhaps less harsh today; but consequences of negligence can be far more deadly due to the greater number of people using engineered facilities. Simply put: An engineered system fails when it stops working according to agreed standards. And failure is often due to negligence in the design and construction – and often through human factors.

I would note that there are often failures which are not due to engineering negligence – simply lawyers finding unreasonable fault.

Disasters Litter the Engineering Landscape
You can reel off a list of disasters caused by negligence that litter the engineering landscape:

  • Challenger Space shuttle explodes killing 7 crew. Due to failure of the O-ring leading to the explosion of liquid fuel tanks.
  • Bhopal. Piping systems failure leading to toxic vapour linked to the killing of thousands.
  • Piper Alpha. An offshore platform exploded, killing numerous personnel.
  • Chernobyl. A nuclear cloud is released over Europe.
  • Therac-25, a cancer irradiation device. Due to a software bug patients are killed by the doses of radiation.

And recently, some spectacularly ugly train accidents. How on earth; after so much investment in train safety systems; can we still have head-on collisions? I can also list many bridge failures and building collapses due to negligence (and not only in the so-called Third World but in highly sophisticated economies such as the USA and Canada).

The Main Causes of Engineering Disasters
The primary causes of engineering disasters (according to SUNY at Stony Brook) are due to (entirely or in part):

  • Human factors (incl. both ethical failure and accidents)
  • Design flaws (resulting often from unethical practices)
  • Materials failures
  • Extreme conditions or environments

A recent study pointed out engineers were at fault with the top four reasons being:

  • Insufficient knowledge (36%)
  • Underestimation of influence (16%)
  • Ignorance, carelessness, negligence (14%)
  • Forgetfulness, error (13%)

(this is from a study of 800 structural failures)

How to Guard against these human flaws?
A simple starting point, I would respectfully suggest is to question everything you and your colleagues do in your engineering work. Never accept anything at face value.
Hopefully, what Doug Adams says is not true about you and me: ‘He attacked everything in life with a mix of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence, and it was often difficult to tell which was which’.

Yours in engineering learning,

Steve


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