“Have you ever noticed when something bad happens, people automatically look for someone to blame?” Amy Roberts
I’m not a structural engineer, which means that I’m not qualified to comment on what went wrong when the pedestrian bridge at Florida International University collapsed on Thursday, March 15, 2018.
I didn’t work on the design or construction of that bridge, or review the plans for the design or construction of that bridge, which means that I’m not qualified to comment on what went wrong when the bridge collapsed.
I am a safety engineer and I do conduct incident investigations, and I am qualified to say that as a society we are at a crossroads and we need to decide what we want to come out of the myriad of investigations that are gearing up.
Equally unqualified people are commenting on the collapse, and because the press is seeking them out, we are at risk of losing out in the rush to judgment.
I don’t blame the press. Their job is to sell stories. A good story has a victim, a villain, and a hero. No one has to look far to find victims, and not just the six dead as a result of the collapse. As for villains, the press has quickly settled on the engineering company, the construction company, and anyone who thinks Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) is a good method for building bridges. It must be frustrating that they haven’t settled on a hero yet.
Experts have commented from the comfort of their easy chairs. “The ABC method is risky,” said one expert. Another expert said, “They used concrete instead of steel, which is about one-tenth the weight of concrete.” Most insightful, however, was the expert that said, “We’ve got to figure out who did it. At best, someone made a horrible, negligent mistake. But in my experience, it tends more often to have its roots in a greedy corporate decision to save money or cut costs.”
“Figure out who did it.” By that, he could only mean, who do we blame?
Incident investigations can go down one of two paths. Traditional investigations—criminal investigations, regulatory investigations, insurance investigations—all have one objective: determining negligence, blame, and guilt. Was a crime committed, and if so, who committed it? Was a regulation violated, and if so, who should the regulatory agency cite? Were contracts breached or torts perpetrated, and if so, who should pay and how much? Traditional investigations are all retrospective; they focus on the past.
Safety investigations are not traditional investigations. They want to know one thing: how do we keep this from happening again in the future. The purpose of a safety investigation is to learn what was responsible, not who was responsible, because it is only in knowing what was responsible that we have any hope of learning how to reduce the likelihood of a similar event from happening in the future.
The two approaches are mutually exclusive. Sidney Dekker put it very well. “As long as there is fear that information provided in good faith can end up being used by a legal system, practitioners are not likely to engage in open reporting.” Both the engineering company and the construction company have promised to cooperate with investigators, but how can their lawyers let them if what they say “can and will be used against them in a court of law”?
Do we want to know what happened, so we can prevent it from happening again? Or do we want to punish people to get closure?
Six people died in FIU bridge collapse, so many officials have felt compelled to comment. It is not the deaths that prompted the comments, though. The National Safety Council reports that again in 2017, there were over 100 transportation-related fatalities per day. Those don’t elicit public comment or national news coverage. The FIU bridge collapse, however, prompted Florida Gov. Rick Scott to say, “We will hold anybody accountable if anybody has done anything wrong.”
The Miami-Dade Police Director, Juan Perez, on the other hand, said, “This is a tragedy that we don’t want to re-occur anywhere in the United states. We just want to find out what caused this collapse to occur and people to die.”
Presently, there are investigations underway by
- Miami-Dade County prosecutors
- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration
- The National Transportation Safety Board
Prosecutors prosecute. Their investigations are about bringing someone to trial.
OSHA cites for violations of workplace safety regulations. Their investigation is about which employers to cite for failing to comply with 29 CFR 1926 and the general duty clause, which requires employers to provide their employees with “a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”
Congress has charged the NTSB with “determining the probable cause of transportation accidents and promoting transportation safety.” In the words NTSB Chairman, Robert Suwalt, “Our entire purpose in being here is to find out what happened so we can keep it from happening again.” Assuming, of course, that local prosecutors, state officials, and other federal agencies let them do their job.
I don’t have an opinion about the ABC method. Its proponents concede that it is more expensive than traditional bridge construction methods, but that it has less impact on traffic and is safer for workers. Contractors have built hundreds of bridges in the U.S. using the ABC method, and European contractors have used the ABC method for decades. The FIU bridge was only unique because it was a pedestrian bridge. The point of innovation is to do things faster, cheaper, or better. The cost-benefit calculation for the ABC method is not one I am qualified to make.
I will say that we should not rush to judgment on the fatal catastrophe in Miami. Slow down. Let us accept the possibility that things go terribly wrong, even when everyone follows the rules. It’s an uncomfortable notion, I know, because if terrible things happen at random, where is the control? But let’s not be so quick to assign blame that we miss the opportunity to address the actual causes, just in case this is something we can control.
Someone once told me that every engineer thinks that the engineer that came before him is an idiot. The less we know, the easier it is to believe that. We engineers love to rant. This is a case, however, where we would all benefit from holding our tongue and letting others do their work. It will be hard, because a good investigation into a disaster like this will exceed the patience of most people, but that is what we need to do if we want to reduce the likelihood of something like this from happening again.