Engineering Incidents – Introduction

1940 Collapse of Tacoma Bridge[6]
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An engineering disaster is an event caused by a malfunction of a structure or system and/or some human error in controlling or handling the technology. Engineering hazard incidents include failures, power outages, dam and infrastructure failures. Usually, little or no warning precedes incidents involving engineering hazards. Engineering incidents can also result in hazardous material spills/leaks and radiation leaks.[1]

Engineering disasters tend to be even more challenging for the following reasons:

  • The threats can be sudden, unexpected, and unpredictable.
  • People are responsible and thus the general feeling is that the incident could have been prevented.
  • Engineering disasters can create interpersonal disputes because of lack of sustainable resources.

Human Negligence and the Safety Culture

The general school of thought among safety professionals is that a person’s behavior when no one is looking is the primary indicator of safety culture. An individual’s personal and professional behavior also reflects that individual’s business, professional, and personal ethics. An employee’s behavior is also indicative of the behaviors generally accepted by the company’s management. However, it has been demonstrated that behavior will sometimes shift in different circumstances.[2]

Safety culture is something that everyone in the company needs to worry about. This may be part of the root cause of why serious incidents keep happening. It is quite possible that many people who do not have the word “safety” in their title believe they don’t have to pay attention to safety, or perhaps even have their performance measured.[3]

Industries all over the world can be negatively affected if attention isn’t paid to safety and safety culture. Long lasting damage can be done to reputations and finances. In fact, poor safety culture can put whole firms out of business or forever alter them. One need look no further than the 1984 incident in Bhopal, India, that led to the end of Union Carbide and the 1988 Piper Alpha tragedy that killed 167 people and resulted in Occidental Petroleum withdrawing from its business in the North Sea and becoming a smaller firm. A more recent example is the reduction of BP’s market capitalization and subsequent asset sales after its 2010 Gulf of Mexico incident.[4]

In all of these situations, there was a lack of management attention to the barriers present in the work processes and facilities, as some safety systems had been rendered nonoperational. Acute focus had been lost about what barriers were in place and how process safety needed to be managed.[5]



  1. – Emergency Management Agency – Technology Disasters:
  2. National Society of Engineers – What Causes Safety System Failures?:
  3. National Society of Engineers – What Causes Safety System Failures?:
  4. National Society of Engineers – What Causes Safety System Failures?:
  5. National Society of Engineers – What Causes Safety System Failures?:
  6. Image Source: [Accessed April 5, 2014]