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.