The Engineering Hall of Shame

Sometimes engineers get it wrong. Most recently, a lithium-ion battery engineering failure, that is amounting to $3.1 billion in losses for phone maker Samsung, has made it to the Engineering Hall of Shame. Thankfully, no deaths occurred due to the fire risk their smartphones posed to the world. However, an engineering failure that can lead to deaths on a big scale are those related to structural engineering. A group of students in Angers, France, learned this the hard way. On October 16, 2016 a group of friends attending a housewarming plunged to their deaths when a balcony connected to an apartment collapsed.

As a result, 3 died and 14 were injured. The building was apparently completed 15 years ago but was also renovated and maintained regularly. The Mayor of Angers, Christophe Béchu said: “We can only ask ourselves how such a terrible thing could have happened.” The mayor said a construction fault could perhaps be the reason for the balcony’s collapse. An investigation into why the balcony collapsed has been opened and an inquiry opened into manslaughter and accidental injury was also opened.

As the inquiry progresses, engineers from the social media platform Reddit commented on what they thought could have caused the balcony collapse, based on photographs provided by the Daily Mail. One commented: “It looks like they’ve just extended the slab out without providing any additional reinforcement.” Another comment said: “Looks like a lack of cantilever too.” Another commenter said that the balcony looked to be held up by remesh instead of rebar (how it should be reinforced) which would have not supported a cantilevered balcony. However, the comments are not official deductions of what actually occurred, those will come later with a report.

However, if any of these reinforcement claims are true, the engineers behind the project face not only the manslaughter charges, but also the legal ramifications of unethical engineering. Engineers are supposed to work ethically with the safety, the health and the welfare of the public in mind.

One of the more famous case studies of structural engineering failures comes from the United States, and the year 1981. In many institutions that offer mechanical, structural and civil engineering qualifications, the Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway collapse is a case study that still lives on to this day. Unbeknownst to some, the collapse used to hold the title of the biggest structural failure in the United States. The top spot was replaced by the 9/11 terrorist attacks which caused the collapse of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.

It was July 17, 1981 and the Hyatt Regency Kansas City hotel was hosting their regular weekend dance. Reportedly, a hanger rod design was altered from a one-rod system to a two-rod system that held the fourth floor and the second-floor walkways - which connected one side of the hotel to the other - up in midair. The fourth floor collapsed onto the second floor and then came hurtling down towards the ground floor. 114 people died and 200 were injured. The engineers who worked on the project were found guilty of gross negligence, misconduct, and unprofessional conduct.

In a video commissioned by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in 2015, Paul Spinden, a professor of law at Liberty University explained the ethical implications of the walkways’ collapse. He provided legal advice to the board of architects, professional engineers and land surveyors - the group who had to deal with the fallout of the collapse.

“The cause of the collapse was a result of a failure of any engineer to do engineering calculations on the steel to steel connections on the bridges that spanned the atrium in the Kansas City hotel,” said Spinden.  “It was basically a lack of communication, it was the expectation of the professional engineer. All he had to do was come up with a basic design concept. Once he was done with that and released his drawings to the fabricator, and the erector and the other engineers involved in the project, his job was over, he didn’t need to take any further responsibility.”

Other critics also underline how the communication between the engineers attached to the project was completely wrong. The structural engineer did not communicate his intent to alter the rod-to-beam connection. However, the initial design engineer was also criticized for providing an inaccurate graphical representation of how the one-rod system should have operated. The fabricator had changed the design from the one-bar to two-bar system and sent it back to the lead engineer to be calculated. The engineers did no calculations and went ahead with the project. The victims’ families were paid out a collective sum of $140 million. It was a perfect example of unethical engineering decisions that did not consider the impact of what was being designed.

The Dean of Engineering here at the Engineering Institute of Technology, Steve Mackay, sums up what ethics in engineering means. He said: “Ethics for engineers, means engineers in the fulfilment of their professional duties shall uphold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of their fellow citizens. That should be the highest possible consideration. It’s a very expensive process if you want to rip the system, but ethics is something we as engineers and technical professionals have to do all the time.”

The Engineering Institute of Technology offers a Bachelor of Science in Civil and Structural Engineering. All of the training is conducted online, so you can login from anywhere in the world. You will gain practical industry-oriented knowledge so that you are ready for the job market, or broaden your skills if you are already in the job market. The flexibility of an online system means that it will not get in the way of your external responsibilities. You would be joining prospective engineers from all over the world who want to build better and more secure structures. This degree is taught by industry-leading lecturers, ready to make you the engineering professional you are destined to become.

The next intake for the Bachelor of Science in Civil and Structural Engineering is scheduled to take place the week starting January 03, 2017. Limited places are available, view full course details here.