Lessons that Structural Engineer can learn from past engineering failures
Things don’t always go according to the plan. Over the past century, we have seen many engineering failures that lead to disasters. Anyway, can we blame the engineers for these disasters? At the end of the day, they are also humans, and mistakes can happen to anyone. As humans, we all are affected by phenomena called “Human Factors.” Let’s focus on the aviation industry. How many aircraft accidents we can highlight happened throughout the history. Human Factors had played a role in those accidents as well.
When bad happened, we ask two questions: “What went wrong, who’s to blame.” OK, as responsible Structural Engineers, we must try our best to minimize the errors. Our wrong calculations can kill thousands of people instantly. Let’s talk about the “Hyatt Regency walkway collapse (1981.)” The Structural Engineer who designed the suspended walkways had to take the responsibility for the disaster. 114 people lost their lives and 200 more people got injured badly by the accident. Now the accident has become a major example of engineering failures.
How about the “St. Francis Dam (1928?)” It’s regarded as the deadliest engineering disaster of the 20th century. The accident killed 432 people and more people got caught in the created flood zone. A poor foundation for the structure was the cause of the dam failure. Anyway, when going through this history of engineering failures; the modern engineers can learn some crucial lessons. Even though we are humans, we can’t afford to make mistakes. A single wrong decision by a Structural Engineer can kill many lives in seconds. On the other hand, we can’t stop people blaming us for the lost lives.
Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940) thought the engineers a great lesson when designing the bridges. The designers built the bridge in an ambitious manner to introduce something new to the engineering industry. It was the third-longest “suspension bridge” in 1940. Anyway, the engineers didn’t have an idea of how the strong winds will cause the bridge to move vigorously. On the 7th of November 1940, the bridge lost the grip and collapsed. Nobody died in the accident surprisingly. The accident showed the Structural Engineers the effects of strong winds on large structures. So, the modern engineers take it into account when designing long suspension bridges.
Since I talked about Human Factors earlier, I thought of giving you what the WHO says about it: “Human factors refer to environmental, organizational and job factors, and human and individual characteristics which influence behavior at work in a way which can affect health and safety. A simple way to view human factors is to think about three aspects: the job, the individual and the organization and how they impact people’s health and safety-related behavior.” Now, what can you understand about it? Human Factors directly or indirectly impact people’s health and safety. You know, in aviation; the engineers and the pilots learn about the subject as an essential to maintain the safety standards.
I like to highlight the “Space Shuttle Challenger (1986.)” The space shuttle just lasted 73 seconds after the launch, and exploded into flames killing the 7 crew members. “Disintegration of the vehicle began after an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster (SRB) failed at liftoff. The O-ring was not designed to fly under unusually cold conditions as in this launch.” That’s what the Wikipedia says about the cause of the accident. It’s an engineering fail. The engineers are the responsible ones to determine the tight material of the O-ring to use. Well, choosing the right material is a major responsibility of the Structural Engineers.
Learn from mistakes. That’s what everybody says. Anyway, we; the Structural Engineers have made enough mistakes over the past century. No more mistakes, please.