Ethics and Engineering Failures

During my first semester as a Ph.D. student in 2010, I authored a report with my advisors entitled “Lessons Learned from Dam Failures.”  This was a wonderful experience for me both as an engineer and an academic.  It was fascinating to see the many ways in which failure can occur and to consider the lessons that we as engineers should learn from past mistakes made by our profession.

Davis’s use of the Challenger failure to discuss codes and ethics in engineering reminded me of these dam failures in a couple of ways.  First, the engineers involved with some of the failures in the early 1900s expressed a need for the wider accountability within the civil engineering profession.  For dam engineering, this eventually came in the form of state dam safety organizations and review boards.  I would be surprised, however, if the adoption of ASCE’s first code was not influenced to some extent by the prominent dam failures of that era, especially Austin Dam and South Fork Dam.  Killing over 2,200 people, the latter was one of the worst engineering disasters in our country’s history.

My second observation has bearing on our consideration of almost all ethics violations, including the case studies we’re studying as a class.  Davis points out that it is almost always difficult to pinpoint a single cause of a failure.  In our report, we quote Sowers (1979) who said, concerning a landslide,

Often the final factor [in a slope failure] is nothing more than a trigger that sets a body of earth in motion that was already on the verge of failure. Calling the final factor the cause is like calling the match that lit the fuse that detonated the dynamite that destroyed the building the cause of the disaster.

As Davis and Sowers both point out, we need to be careful when considering failures, like the Challenger or the DC Lead scandal or the TCC case, not to narrow our vision to a single cause or try to blame only one person or organization.  Almost always, the situation is vastly more complicated with many shades of responsibility.

3 thoughts on “Ethics and Engineering Failures

  1. I agree with your statement that we should be careful about pointing blame and narrowing our focus to one entity. As it usually seems, problems are much more complex than we can imagine and more entities are usually involved. With each entity involved the problem become much greater than anticipated especially when they point blame at everyone but them. In most of these cases there are several failures along the system, a system that should stop the problem somewhere in the line.

  2. I think the danger of these retrospective case studies is that they tend to paint things in black and white, and to leave out the uncertainty, and the relatively small odds of failure. Challenger was much more complicated than was summarized in the sound bites and easy quotes presented in Davis. I often think people have learned the wrong lessons from it and I hope to elaborate on this in class.

  3. I agree that in many cases it’s hard to pinpoint a single cause or single individual behind a disaster, since often it is numerous factors that have to go wrong for an entire system to collapse. I think the DC lead fiasco is a case in point. My only discomfort with this issue is that if it is not presented with the appropriate nuances and clarifications, it can be taken to mean that seeking accountability when something goes wrong is an exercise in futility because finding an actual single cause or an actual single wrongdoer is often impossible.

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