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Man Made Disasters: Where Were the Engineers?

“Many man made disasters are caused by a failure of ethics.”

Disasters: Most man made disasters are sudden with explosion, fires, deaths, and highly visible damage. The public is outraged, the incident is investigated, blame is assigned, and laws are made to prevent it from ever happening again. It is not the same with the climate change disaster taking place. It is happening slowly, with thousands and thousands of CO2 sources, and its full effect will not be known for generations. Who is responsible for preventing the disaster?  Although many individuals take responsibility on a personal level, many businesses put their short term profits first, and politicians lack the will or do not want to offend their big donors.

Scientists now have clear and convincing evidence that  the climate is changing but their role, however, is limited to education and research. It is the engineers who have the knowledge and the power to respond – as they design, build, operate, and approve every major project. It may not be fair to put such responsibility on the engineers, but their ethics requires it. The most important responsibility of engineers in performing their duties, according to the Engineering Code of Ethics, is to

“Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”

Many disasters at first seem to be failures of engineering, technology, or materials, but on further examination the real cause is often found to be a failure of ethics.  Two recent major disasters could have been prevented or the damage mitigated if the engineers had followed – or been allowed to follow –  their code of ethics. When technological disasters happen, the first question should be” Where were the engineers?”.

The Gulf Oil Disaster: To satisfy our need for oil, we have had to search wider, drill deeper, and take greater risks. The Deepwater Horizon platform was a technological marvel, capable of drilling oil wells where the ocean was a mile deep. As British Petroleum was completing its Maconda Well from the platform, an explosion and fire occurred. Eleven men were killed and 17 injured by the explosion and fire. The platform eventually sank, breaking the pipe. The blowout preventer, designed to shut off the oil flow in case of such a disaster, failed. Over 4.5 million gallons of oil poured into the Gulf before the flow could be stopped. The environmental damage to the oceans, wildlife, and estuaries from the oil and from the million gallons of corexit, a toxic detergent sprayed to break up the oil, may not be known for decades.

There were a number of key decisions that led up to the disaster that should have been approved by the engineers. Any one of them, had it been made with engineering ethics in mind , could have  prevented  the disaster or ameliorated its effect on the workers and the environment. BP claimed the explosion was caused by the gas released at the sea floor warming as it rose to the surface. However, the gas would have expanded and cooled. Clearly, there was a source of ignition at the surface. Why weren’t the ignition sources that might lead to an explosion eliminated. The workers quarters could have been explosion proof – why weren’t they? Why did Halliburton proceed with cementing the well when the results of the pressure tests were inconclusive? Why was a particular type of cement used on the well, when it had given inconclusive performance tests? 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? Were efforts directed toward covering up the disaster rather than trying to mitigate the environmental damage? And the list of questions goes on. The most critical of which is why BP ever started  drilling in a very risky and unstable zone alongside  a salt dome.

Obviously, what happened cannot be changed but, as the investigation into the cause continues, it is important to know who made the key decisions and why. The role of the management in the decision making was to make a profit for the company and to weigh the benefits and risk against the costs. The role of the government in the disaster is clouded by the cozy nature of the relationship between the regulators and the oil companies it was charged to regulate. The role of the engineers should have been, first and foremost, to protect the public.

The Challenger: It was a different type of disaster, but  it has some important lessons as the Challenger Space Shuttle is one of the most studied disasters. 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 world, the public, you, me and everyone else, must trust our safety to the engineers who design, test, and make decisions about the products we use. 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. Many ethical violations are discovered and investigated only when they lead to a major disaster. But, what about environmental disasters whose full effect may not be be known until far into the future? It is particularly important that engineers begin to see protecting the environment as part of their ethical obligation to protect the public.

(c) 2010 J.C. Moore

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