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The Gulf Oil Disaster: Where Were the Engineers?

Where were the engineers? At the Deepwater Horizon , a number of key decisions may have led to the disaster and affected the outcome. The role of the management in the decisions was to make a profit for the company and to weigh the benefits and risk against the costs. The most important responsibility of the engineers in performing their duties, according to Engineering Code of Ethics, was to

” Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” (1)

Questions that need to be answered as the investigation continues are : Could the ignition sources for the explosion have been avoided? Why were the workers quarters not explosion proof? Why did Halliburton proceed with cementing the well when the results of the pressure tests were inconclusive? Who made the disastrous decision to replace the drilling mud with seawater? Why were problems with the blowout preventer not addressed? Were early efforts directed at trying to save the well or to prevent a major oil spill disaster? Obviously, what has happened cannot be changed but, as the investigation into the cause continues, it is important to know who answered those key questions and why they were answered the way they were. When those key decisions were made, where were the engineers?

The Challenger, A Different Disaster. One of the most studied disasters is that of the Challenger Space Shuttle. (2) Most people think that an engineering failure led to the disaster, but in fact, it was a failure of ethics. One difficult problem in the design of the space shuttle was how to transport the large fuel tanks to the launch site. Morton Thiokol won the contract by designing fuel tanks that could be transported to the site in sections and sealed back together with rubber O-rings. The O-rings were effective down to 40°F, but below that, the rubber stiffens and its ability to seal the tanks had not been tested.

The January 1986 Challenger launch was to carry Christa McAuliffe, the teacher the year, into space. The weather had been cool and uncooperative in Florida that January and there had been several delays in the launch. President Reagan was planning to include the education aspect of the shuttle launch in his State of the Union speech and, for that and other reasons, pressure was building on the shuttle team to proceed with the launch. However, the temperature was predicted to be 29°F on the morning of January 28 and the engineers strongly recommended against the launch. The decision whether to launch was the responsibility of Bob Lund, the vice president of engineering for Morton Thiokol. On the advice of his engineers, he recommended against the launch.

However, Jerald Mason, the general manager of Morton Thiokol, called a meeting to discuss the decision. He asked Bob Lund to “Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.” He was asking Lund, in effect, to put aside his engineering ethics and weigh the very unlikely possibility of an accident against the public relations benefits of launching on schedule. Apparently, that argument worked as Lund approved the launch, despite the fact that the predicted launch temperature was outside of the operational specifications. At 59 seconds into the launch, the O-rings failed and the rocket exploded, plunging the Challenger into the ocean and killing all seven astronauts. It was the worst disaster in the U.S. space program’s history.

“Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” In our increasingly technical and complicated world, we often use products and devices designed by engineers. The public, you, me and everyone else, must trust our safety to the engineers who design, test, and make decisions about those products. Engineering schools now include the study of professional ethics in the curriculum and try to convey to students their importance. However, in some instances, engineers do not follow their ethical code because of financial rewards, job security issues, peer pressure, or company loyalty. Often, small ethical violations go unnoticed and unreported unless, or until, they grow into a major problem. Many violations are only discovered and investigated when they lead to a public relations fiasco, a death, a lawsuit, or a major disaster. It is imperative that engineers steadfastly hold paramount their duty to protect the public. Engineers who violate their ethical code and managers who override the engineer’s decisions on safety should be financially and criminally liable for the disasters they cause.

(1) http://www.nspe.org/Ethics/CodeofEthics/index.html

(2) http://ethics.tamu.edu/ethics/shuttle/shuttle1.htm

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