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Article 1.

--Engineering Disasters and Learning from Failure

Blog: Learning From Engineering Disasters

The role of the engineer is to respond to a need
by building or creating something along a
certain set of guidelines (or specifications)
which performs a given function. Just as
importantly, that device, plan or creation
should perform its function without fail.
Everything, however, must eventually fail (in
some way) to perform its given function with a
sought after level of performance. Hence, the
engineer must struggle to design in such a way
as to avoid failure, and, more importantly,
catastrophic failure which could result in loss
of property, damage to the environment of the
user of that technology, and possibly injury or
loss of life. Through analysis and study of
engineering disasters, modern engineering
designers can learn what not to do and how to
create designs with less of a chance of failure.

What Makes a Failure Into an "Engineering Disaster"?

Much of the reason why we consider an engineering failure to be an engineering "disaster" has to do
with public perception of risk. For example, in 1992 roughly the same number of fatalities occurred
(in the United States) in transportation accidents involving airplanes (775), trains (755), and bicycles
(722). Yet the public perception of the risk associated with air travel is often much higher than that
for trains and certainly for bicycles. This stems from two reasons: (1) the large loss of life (and
associated wide spread news reporting) resulting from a single air crash, and (2) the air passenger's
lack of control over their environment in the case of air or, to a lesser degree, rail accidents. Both of
these reasons results in increased fear, and hence a higher degree of perceived risk.

Primary Causes of Engineering Disasters

The primary causes of engineering disasters are usually considered to be

human factors (including both 'ethical' failure and accidents)

design flaws (many of which are also the result of unethical practices)

materials failures

extreme conditions or environments, and, most commonly and importantly

combinations of these reasons

A recent study conducted at the Swiss federal Institute of technology in Zurich analyzed 800 cases of
structural failure in which 504 people were killed, 592 people injured, and millions of dollars of
damage incurred. When engineers were at fault, the researchers classified the causes of failure as
Insufficient knowledge .......... 36%
Underestimation of influence .....16%
Ignorance, carelessness, negligence
Forgetfulness, error..............13%
Relying upon others without sufficient control.
Objectively unknown situation......7%
Imprecise definition of responsibilities.. 1%
Choice of bad quality .............1%

M. Matousek and Schneider, J., (1976)

Untersuchungen Zur
Struktur des Zicherheitproblems bei
Bauwerken, Institut
fr Baustatik und Konstruktion der ETH
Bericht No. 59, ETH.

Engineering Ethics
Often, a deficiency in engineering ethics is found to be one of the root causes of an engineering
failure. An engineer, as a professional, has a responsibility to their client or employer, to their
profession, and to the general public, to perform their duties in as conscientious a manner as
possible. Usually this entails far more than just acting within the bounds of law. An ethical engineer
is one who avoids conflicts of interest, does not attempt to misrepresent their knowledge so as to
accept jobs outside their area of expertise, acts in the best interests of society and the environment,
fulfills the terms of their contracts or agreements in a thorough and professional manner, and
promotes the education of young engineers within their field. Many of these issues are discussed in
detail at the ethics homepage of the National Society of Professional Engineers. There you will find
an example of an engineering Code of Ethics and links to additional information on engineering
ethics. Failures in engineering ethics can have many legal consequences as well, as in the case of a
mall collapse in Korea.
The site for Applied Ethics in Professional Practice Case of the Month Club created and maintained
by then Professional Engineering Practice Liaison Program in the College of Engineering at
University of Washington, provides the opportunity to review a particular case study which involves
engineering ethics and then vote on which course of action should be taken. All cases are based on
actual professional engineering experiences as contributed by a board of practicing engineers
nationally. Background information on codes of ethics is also provided at this site.

Article 2-- Engineering Ethics

Example: Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse, Kansas City, 1981

A 3rd floor walkway across a hotel atrium collapsed during a party, killing 114 people
the builders made a change in the design of the walkway support, which was already
a structural engineer named Jack Gillum put his seal on the plans--he had 100 engineers
working for him on many different projects. The project engineer was a man named Daniel
Gillum and Duncan were charged with gross negligence by the licensing board and their
licenses were revoked even though criminal charges had not been filed against them.
Gillum's defense was that he signed off on the plans without looking at them and that this
was common practice.
they lost their licenses--the first engineers to lose their licenses for negligence in the 20th
century (source of this material is a lecture by Sarah Pfatteicher, who wrote a dissertation on
the history of engineering ethics)
Professional ethics is different from personal morality.
Why not take a bribe? three reasons-o breaks the law
o violates professional ethics
o violates moral norms about cheating

professional ethics are a kind of contract

o you get certain privileges as a member of a particular profession and in return you are
required to follow the rules of that profession
o because you agree to follow the rules in return for privileges you don't have the right
to ignore those rules that you don't agree with (besides which, people who think they
are above the rules usually end up deceiving themselves into serious trouble)
o Professional ethics may expect you to do something contrary to your personal moral
views, for example a lawyer who takes on defending a murderer is expected by
professional ethics to do a good job even if s/he thinks the murderer deserved to be
convicted. (Lawyers don't have to take a case, but somebody has to take the job of
defending the murderer.)

Tacoma Narrows Bridge

Florman claims that engineers don't need codes of ethics any more.

laws have replaced ethics

it is more important to do a good job (sloppy work is a more common cause of harm than
ethical violations)
everyone has their own different ethics and we put more emphasis on individual views
and less on common values
where questions of individual concern are involved (eg. ban nuclear weapons?) engineers
should act through the political process

to improve the decisions made by the political process maybe engineers can help educate
the public
Specific issues:
professional ethics used to include a lot of what Florman calls guild rules
o do not advertise
o do not engage in competitive bidding
but that isn't really to the point (and has been ruled in violation of antitrust laws)

Florman asks: what are the responsibilities of the professional engineer? Serve the public interest-means what?
not breaking the law?
o engineers have been found guilty of everything from bribery to negligence
o But this isn't a special dilemma for engineers.
o things that used to be a matter of ethics, like product safety, have increasingly been
Use technology for good rather than for evil?
o But Florman says "Engineers do not have the responsibility, much less the right, to
establish goals for society."
You may decide on the basis of personal ethics that you don't want to design a
gambling casino, but that isn't a matter of professional ethics.
If we think cigarettes should be banned we should work for that as a
government decision, not call on individuals to not design cigarette
manufacturing machines or sell cigarettes.
o it is not part of the engineer's job to second-guess government regulations and
prevailing standards or to challenge public policy. Such action is appropriate as a
So what is left for ethics in Florman's view?
o Engineers should do their work conscientiously.
o Diligence is more important than moral intentions; sloppiness does much more harm
than greed or intent to deceive.
o Engineers should work to inform the public so that better democratic decisions can be

TV tower collapse

Other people who have studied engineering ethics often make stronger claims--situations that
feel like moral issues do arise fairly frequently. You can find a detailed code for dealing with
such subjects at National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics for
Do engineers have a responsibility to protect society simply on the basis of general morality,
or do they have some special obligation as engineers (professionals with expert knowledge)?
How often do people find themselves caught between professional obligations and their role
as employees? Texas Instruments Advice on Ethics
o Obligation?
o legal protection (for federal employees in 1979)
o Between 1977 and 1992 (when protection for whistleblowers working for DOE
contractors went into effect) the Dept. of Energy had about 100 cases of
whistleblowing at the five sites like the Savannah River Plant, almost all of them
involving health and safety issues.

Finally, we should think about our personal morality.

Personal morality does not carry over automatically into your career--we don't necessarily
recognize the ethical dilemmas we meet because we are too busy doing our jobs. You need
to think about the situations you meet in order to live by your own morality
Different people think of morality in different ways:

o Utilitarianism--an action is right or wrong depending on its consequences, such as its

effects on society. More specifically--everyone should behave in such a way so as to
bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people
o Idealism--there is some fundamental standard of right and wrong by which we can
judge our actions. Copying software is always wrong, even if it does no harm or has a
beneficial effect on society as a whole. It is relatively easy to say killing is always
wrong, harder to say that lying is always wrong.

Answer the following questions on a SEPARATE SHEET OF PAPER.

1. Do engineers have a responsibility to protect society simply on the basis of general morality,
or do they have some special obligation as engineers (professionals with expert knowledge)?

Think about a time when you found yourself caught between obligations to your peers and
your role as a student? How did you handle it? What would you have done differently if you
were in that same place today?


What do you think the consequences should be when professionals do not act ethically?