What engineering disasters have taught us about who we hire

Engineering is the building block of almost everything in our current world. Engineers have contributed immensely to our quality of life, and with an admirable speed of innovation.

Because engineering is a human activity – at least for now – there are bound to be mistakes and accidents. In fact, you could say that engineering is the study of failure, and ways to avoid it.

The Hyatt Regency walkway collapse on July 17, 1981

Unfortunately, there have been some incredibly tragic and unforgettable engineering catastrophes over the last century – think the Titanic, the Bhopal Disaster, and the nuclear powerplant explosion in Chernobyl. Closer to home, we have had the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse in 1981, the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster, and the 2005 levee failures in New Orleans, to name some.

These disasters have all resulted from a mixture of design/material failures, miscalculations, miscommunication, insufficient knowledge, and/or human negligence.

You don’t want your next engineering project to be likened to any of these historic disasters. And while we can’t control everything, you can (largely) control who you hire to work on your projects. Finding the right engineering consultant is one of the most important decisions you can make to ensure that your next project goes down in history for only the right reasons.

What lessons can we learn from engineering disasters to help guide us as we search to hire our next engineering consultant?

  1. Your potential hire’s proclivity for checking details, and checking details again and again, matters greatly. Case in point: The Hyatt Regency walkway collapse on July 17, 1981, when two walkways fell down at the Kansas City, Missouri. hotel, one directly above the other, killing 144 and injuring 216. An investigation into the collapse discovered a significant change to the original design of the walkways.
  2. The St. Francis Dam collapse of 1928

    They must be able to approach all assignments objectively, exercise sound judgement, prudent economic principles, and provide solutions that serve the best interests of more than just themselves. Case in point: in 1928, the St. Francis Dam in California catastrophically failed, and the resulting flood killed at least 431 people. Considered one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of the 20th century, it is said that the dam’s designer, William Mulholland, repeatedly ignored warnings that the dam had developed cracks and was leaking.

  3. Their ability to communicate, and strength of character matters. While consultants are essentially fixers, serving as objective trouble-shooters, and providing strategies to prevent problems and improve performance, it is essential that they know how to effectively communicate the problem and the solution. Engineering is a precise discipline, requiring ongoing communication with a wide number of people. Case in point: the official report on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, during which all seven crew members were killed upon re-entry into the atmosphere, was highly critical of NASA’s decision-making and risk-assessment processes, which ultimately led to a compromise of safety.
  4. They must know to only act on sufficient knowledge. Having in-depth knowledge of all required information is essential. Case in point: On August 29, 2005, there were over 50 failures of the levees and floodwalls protecting New Orleans, Louisiana, and its suburbs following the passage of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi. Four major investigations later identified the underlying reasons as being inadequate design and construction, in particular an underestimation of the soil’s strength.
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