on July 1st, 2021

Failure teaches us more than success, especially in the realm of engineering disasters.

Whilst on the surface it may sound seemingly absurd, this is a widely accepted thinking among the engineering field. Lessons will always arise in the face of disaster as the cause of failure can be exposed, reviewed, and corrected to make improvements. 

In short, our wrongdoings are motivation for innovation. 

However, this should not be confused with the idea that failure is desirable. Rather that it is inevitable. Failure is a given and something that engineers can embrace to ensure history does not repeat itself.  

Here are the main lessons that were learned from some of the history’s worst engineering disasters. 

1. Why Communication is Critical 

The tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger was a fatal accident that occurred on the 28th of January, 1986. What was supposed to be the 25th flight of the shuttle, ended up being its last.  

The extremely cold temperatures experienced on launch day reduced the resiliency of two rubber O-rings used to seal the joint between the lower segments of the right-hand solid rocket booster. An effect called joint rotation occurred, which prevented the rings from resealing and opened a path for hot exhaust gas to escape from inside the boosters.  

Structure of the solid rocket booster on space shuttle

73 seconds later, the spacecraft broke apart and plunged into the ocean, killing all seven members of the crew aboard, and throwing NASA’s shuttle program into turmoil. 

The worst part? Engineers had continuously warned of the potential issue but were overruled. 

The night before launch, engineers pushed for the launch to be stopped, with one of them even telling his wife that “It’s going to blow up.” 

Bob Ebeling and four other engineers at NASA contractor, Morton Thiokol, desperately tried to present the severity of their findings surrounding the O-rings. However, it wasn’t enough for Thiokol managers and NASA officials. 

With higher-ups making the decision to go ahead, the serious concerns were ignored and we all know what happened next. The engineers were unable to persuade their management to recommend against the launch. And so, Challenger lifted off only to disintegrate moments after takeoff. The lack of effective and understanding communication between decision makers and the technicians and engineers resulted in one of NASA’s deadliest tragedies. 

Failed communication cost seven lives on January 28th 1986. It is a devastating example of how important communication is not just within engineering teams but with external stakeholders. It can mean the difference between success and failure. 

An understanding of the dynamics at work in the Challenger case can help engineers and engineering managers elsewhere reduce miscommunication in their own companies. 

Engineering disaster: Challenger
Challenger explosion

2. The Importance of Engineering Quality Standards 

On July 17th 1981, an event hosted in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency Hotel ended in tragedy when the second and fourth-floor skywalks collapsed, leaving 114 people dead and another 216 injured.  

Notably, flaws in a simple design change made to a support mechanism went unnoticed, allowing the walkway to buckle. The cause of the collapse was attributed to the change in connection design and the resulting increased weight on the hanger bolts supporting the fourth floor.  

This problem could have been solved with minor design changes, if only someone had noticed. The Hyatt Regency Walkway collapse highlighted just how important quality control and quality assurance is in engineering projects. 

Overlooking a small detail—even on a multimillion-dollar project­—can prove fatal. 

According to the following investigation, the designs of the walkway only met 60% of the city’s prescribed building code requirements. Unbelievably, some of the design changes were confirmed over the phone rather than checking the documentation or even making calculations. Structure instability could have been identified, and remedied, through basic review from any of the parties involved. 

Due to evidence supplied at following hearings, a number of principals involved lost their engineering licenses and a number of firms went bankrupts. The construction company, steel contractor, and hotel owner paid victims and their families $151 million in settlements, judgements, and class action lawsuits.  

The Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse provides a vivid example of the importance of accuracy and construction standards and is a warning to all current and future engineers of the potential cost of cutting corners and not being thorough. 

Suffice to say that gross negligence from team members led to a disaster that could have been easily avoided.  

Image Credit: Dr. Lee Lowery, Jr., P.E.

3. Prioritizing Occupational Safety and Health Can Make All the Difference 

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion occurred on the 20th of April 2010 and resulted in the deaths of 11 workers. The blowout that caused the explosion also caused an oil well fire and a massive offshore oil spill. The oil spill is considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in the world and the largest environmental disaster in US history.  

The disaster ignited conversations around the importance of risk management processes and worker safety. In the years following the explosion, testimony and investigations revealed that a systematic safety and process breakdown led to the eruption.  

Worker testimonies divulged that the rig’s general alarm had been set to bypass and did not automatically trigger because of any warning signals or zone alarms. It was said that this was done to avoid waking workers with false alarms.  

As a result, when the methane gas shot onto the rig on the day of the explosion, the bypassed alarm meant that workers on the drill floor had no warning to help them escape. Unfortunately, that meant that the first sign of any danger came with the blast.  

Furthermore, information appeared around the rig’s safety culture. After the explosion, many workers said they were ill-equipped to respond to the incident and there was an overwhelming sense of confusion and panic when it came to evacuation.  

While it is impossible to supply training to prepare for every single incident, it is critical that lessons consider the most probably high-risk situations. Giving workers the resources, they need to respond to even the most dangerous scenarios is the best way to ensure an emergency is not made worse.  

By Unknown author – US Coast Guard – 100421-G-XXXXL- Deepwater Horizon fire (Direct link), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10089914

The Deepwater Horizon disaster serves as an important reminder that safety and workflow processes cannot be ignored. Regardless of whether you work in oil and gas or in another industry with high occupational risk, worker safety should be a top priority and something regularly practiced. 

Understand the different types of protection, maintenance of safety equipment, and requirements for working with hazardous areas with EIT’s Professional Certificate of Competency in Hazardous Areas & Intrinsic Safety For Engineers & Technicians. 

4. The Importance of Proper Maintenance 

The 1889 Johnstown Flood was another wake-up call for engineers around the world. In May of that year, the South Fork Dam broke, unleashing tens of millions of tons of water downstream.  

The dam broke after several days of extremely heavy rainfall, releasing over 14 million cubic meters of water. With a volumetric flow rate that temporarily equaled the average flow rate of the Mississippi River, the flood accounted for $17 million of damage ($490 million in 2021 dollars).  

On May 31, 1889, a neglected dam and a phenomenal storm led to the Johnstown flood, in which 2,209 people died.
(Johnstown Area Heritage Assn.)

The nearby city of Johnstown in Pennsylvania was decimated, resulting in the loss of over 2,200 lives. It was later discovered that the owners of the dam did not maintain it properly. In fact, one owner removed the drainage pipes beneath the dam to sell them for scrap, which meant there was no way to drain the reservoir for repairs. 

Throughout its existence, questionable modifications were made to the dam. Fish screens were installed across the spillway to keep fish from escaping but also resulted in debris being captured and the lakes overflow not being able to drain properly. The dam was also lowered by a few feet to make it possible for two carriages to pass at the same time, making the dam only four feet higher than the spillway. 

A 2016 analysis of the events that occurred confirmed that the modifications made to the dam severely reduced the ability of the dam to withstand major storms. The report found that changes made to the dam and improper maintenance practices were responsible for the disaster, rendering it highly vulnerable to overtopping.  

The tragic failure of the South Fork Dam proves just how important effective maintenance is in engineering projects. Through regular inspections, problems can be detected before they arise and adjustments can be made. The detection of small problems before they become major problems can make all the difference in preventing disaster and failure.  

5. The Crucial Role of Testing and Simulation 

Construction began on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washinton during 1938. The bridge would span the Tacoma Narrows strait of Puget Sound between Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula. However, from the time that the desk was built, the bridge was already beginning to move in windy conditions.  

Only a few months after opening, the bridge’s main span collapsed during 64km/h winds. The deck oscillated in an alternating twisting motion that gradually increased in amplitude until it tore apart. Following investigations found that the bridge’s ambitious design had not factored in the dangers that high winds would pose to the structure.  

The bridge’s collapse has had a lasting effect on science and engineering. Othmar Amman said of the collapse of the 1940 Narrows Bridge; 

“Regrettable as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge failure and other recent experiences are, they have given us invaluable information and have brought us closer to the safe and economical design of suspension bridges against wind action.” 

After the disaster, the new bridge was redesigned and rebuilt in 1950. The new bridge incorporated open trusses, stiffening struts, and allowed the wind to flow freely through openings in the roadbeds.  

Failure of the 1940 Tacoma Narrows Bridge revealed for the first-time limitations of the Deflection Theory. Since the Tacoma disaster, aerodynamic stability analysis has come to supplement the theory, but not replace it.  

Nowadays, in bridge design, engineering simulation plays a crucial part in the testing process. Using CFD to simulate wind loads and FEA to investigate stresses and the structural behavior of bridges, engineers can prevent failures like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse and build better and stronger structures. 

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