Why do people only think of civil engineers when there's a failure?

Just as spies become known only when they fail in their missions, probably the same can be said of civil engineers. Structural expert Dr Himansu Banerjee asks how we can change this mindset.

A rusted pipe and its bridge on the brink of failure.
A rusted pipe and its bridge on the brink of failure.
When our daily lives are intact, normal, in gear, and modern systems are working, we hardly ever credit the civil engineers who had been and remain behind it. Yet, whenever something fails, we jump to accuse the little-known engineer for his/her mistakes in making faulty things.   

Kolkata has witnessed some unfortunate bridge collapses over the last few years and, with my extensive experience as a structural expert in developing and developed countries, I was invited to talk about this topic at an evening lecture at the Calcutta Club. 

There was a good turnout at the lecture, including students and professionals. 

Representatives from organisations like IPHE (Institution of Public Health Engineers, Kolkata), CEAI (Consulting Engineers Association of India) Kolkata Chapter, ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers), and Institution of Engineers (India), also attended.  
 

The social impact of infrastructure failure

Rather than talk about the background of engineering failures, I focussed my lecture on the social impacts of them.  

I covered a range of major structural failures in my lecture, discussing my views on the reasons for failure in each case study, the societal impact of each failure, the number of casualties from each, and the impact on direct and indirect stakeholders.  

The examples included the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse (Washington, USA) in the 1940s, West Gate Bridge failure (Melbourne, Australia) in the 1970s to most recent failures of Rana Plaza Savar building collapse (Dhaka, Bangladesh) in 2013 and Grenfell Tower fire incident (London, UK) in 2017.  

I also talked in detail about the recent bridge collapses in Kolkata, namely Ultadanga flyover (curved span collapse), Bibekananda bridge (collapse of an under-construction bridge), Majerhat flyover (failure while in operation). 
 

How can structural failures teach civil engineers to be more responsible?  

During my lecture, I asked the following questions of the audience – and I’d like readers of this blog to think about them, too.  
  1. Should professional certification be made mandatory for engineers, involved in signing off design documents and construction drawings, to hold them accountable and responsible in the event of any failure?  
  2. Should there be a well-maintained depository of all updated construction and as-built drawings so that these can be retrieved in a timely manner in case of any eventuality? 
  3. Should the engineers become actively associated with societies like ICE, ASCE, EA (Engineers Australia) so that they are constantly updating their knowledge and understanding on standards and emerging techniques? 
  4. Should risk management course be included in undergraduate civil engineering curriculum?  
  5. Should professional indemnity insurance be made mandatory for all practising professionals?  
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