Structural Safety and the Obligation of the Engineer
I moved to Silicon Valley with my husband about a year ago. In the past year, we have met many people in the tech industry, including many software and computer engineers. The nature of living in this area is that just about everyone you meet is a top-of-the-field expert in something. People here take their work seriously.
As I have talked about my work in structural engineering in this environment, I’ve been surprised by the way other technical people have expressed respect for the responsibility involved in civil engineering projects. I had not thought about my profession in this way before, but it does make sense. If a software engineer makes a mistake on a project, she can issue a patch or create an updated version of the program to address the problem. On the other hand, if a structural engineer makes a critical mistake, it could harm or even kill someone.
The weight of the responsibility involved in structural engineering work hit home earlier this year when a partially-constructed pedestrian bridge at Florida International University collapsed onto a busy highway in Miami. This major, fatal failure killed five motorists and one project worker and injured many others. It is sobering to be reminded of the potential cost of a mistake, either in design or construction sequencing. I believe that the profession owes it to the public to conduct a thorough, transparent, and rigorous investigation of this tragedy. I am confident that this will be done, and that the engineering practice will be changed to reflect what is learned.
When a catastrophe like this occurs, the trust of the public is shaken. This reality drives several elements of civil engineering work, from design standards and quality control to regular inspections. At EBA Engineering, the work done in our structures department illustrates the commitment of the civil engineering profession to produce and maintain structures and systems that are safe and serve the public well.
One example of this commitment is EBA’s bridge inspection work, which helps to ensure that existing bridges are safe and maintained well. The statistics on America’s failing infrastructure are pretty grim. According to NACE, approximately 30 percent of U.S. bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. The Federal Highway Administration says it will cost billions more than is currently allotted to properly update existing bridges.
In Maryland, EBA has been inspecting and evaluating the state’s bridges to keep them compliant with industry and government standards for more than 20 years. EBA has load rated more than 100 bridges using industry-leading structural analysis software and rating methods. But the goal is much larger than our contracted work. It speaks to the very nature of our profession—keeping the public safe.
When I graduated with my undergraduate degree in civil engineering, my department held an induction ceremony for the Order of the Engineer. I stood with many of my classmates and recited the Obligation of the Engineer oath, and we each received a stainless-steel ring. This ring is worn on the little finger of the working hand and will touch any paper that the engineer writes on, providing a constant reminder of the oath. It reads:
I am an Engineer. In my profession, I take deep pride. To it, I owe solemn obligations.
As an engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and dignity of my profession. I will always be conscious that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of the Earth’s precious wealth.
As an engineer, I shall participate in none but honest enterprises. When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given, without reservation, for the public good. In the performance of duty, and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give my utmost.
Then and now, this responsibility weighs heavily on me. And as I think about all of the engineers I have worked with professionally over the years, I know that every single one of them would own these words. This encourages me—to know that an entire profession is focused on serving humanity with integrity, environmental responsibility, and dedication to the public good.
As civil engineers, the work that we do does not belong to us, but to the people who use it: the people who drive on the roads and bridges that we build, drink the water we treat, and live in the buildings we design. Indeed, we take deep pride in our profession, because it carries with it the obligation to serve humanity.
Cara Johnson, PE, is a structural engineer at EBA Engineering, Inc. She can be reached at email@example.com.