Many heard about the disaster of the Miami bridge collapse last week. Naturally, the dust didn’t even settle before questions, speculation, and lawsuits started to fly. We all wanted to know why. How do we prevent this? Why did this disaster happen? Who can we blame?
I don’t want to add to that speculation. I am not a bridge designer, but I am a professional engineer (PE). I carry the same legal responsibilities as that bridge designer. The same risk that a disaster like this may ruin my life and possibly send me to jail. That is the risk that a PE faces when performing engineering. In the middle of all this speculation, I think we should remember the role of professional engineers and how they guard your life.
How do we prevent disasters like the Miami bridge collapse? It takes more than technical knowledge. It requires vigilance, and personal investment in the outcome. The life of this bridge began long before any concrete poured. For many months, it was nothing more than lines on paper, with very little significance. Do you get excited about simple lines on a page? Do you check shipping invoices and test reports to make sure steel tensile strength was 35 ksi and not 33 ksi? Yuck! BORING!
The truth is that much of engineering can be boring, and it becomes difficult to remember the significance of our actions. Engineers make mistakes. They lose interest, cut corners, and do any number of things they shouldn’t. The same can be said for builders that carry out the engineering plans. One way or another, these disasters happen because of human fallibility.
The professional engineer is how we combat that fallibility. They are personally responsible for the design. Every time they stamp and sign a drawing or report, they experience a brief moment of hesitation. They ask themselves, “Will this be the report that ruins my life?” That fear is a good thing. It makes the PE go back and triple check things, reconsider all the angles, ask if they missed anything. The personal responsibility of a PE is how we combat the tedium of engineering and prevent human mistakes. Professional engineers save lives.
A professional engineer probably saved your life. Every day they guard you against a thousand dangers that you never considered. Take a good look at where you are right now. Possibly you are sitting comfortably in a simple rectangular room. Maybe located in a commercial building. Consider the weight of all the concrete over your head. Thousands of tons that could crush you instantly if it fell. Is the concrete strong enough? What about the walls; can they handle strong winds? Your reassuring little room contains thousands of ways to die that you never considered. I doubt that anyone checks the design of a room before entering. Because you don’t need to. The PE already did for you. They would trust their own life to the building safety. Every room, every building, every car that you enter. The PE already stood in your place to guard your life.
Even with all our safeguards, professional engineers sometimes fail. A PE guarded the design of the Miami bridge, and it failed. Should we blame the PE for the bridge collapse? Partly, yes. That is part of the responsibility that a PE accepts. But disasters never fall to the fault of a single human. Maybe that PE had a boss that tried to cut costs and ignored recommendations. Maybe the construction firm did not follow the exact specifications for the bridge. The point is that disasters take more than one person. They happen because entire systems of safety fail, not just one person. Quality control, health and safety, professional engineers. All these systems keep us honest and safeguard against human fallibility. But they don’t have a chance if we ignore the systems completely. To prevent these disasters in the future, we can start by supporting the systems we already have.
These don’t guarantee perfection, but they bring us to consistency. A good starting point. This guarantees that any gains we made over the years are not lost to the turbulence of human fallibility.
 Bill Chappel, Amy Held, Scott Neuman. “Pedestrian Bridge Collapse Death Toll Rises to 6 in Miami-Dade County.” NPR. Published March 15, 2018. <https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/15/594014437/fiu-pedestrian-bridge-collapses-in-miami-days-after-being-installed>
 Richard Gonzales, Laurel Wamsley. “State Officials Say They Received A Warning About Cracks Before Bridge Collapse.” NPR. Published March 16, 2018. <https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/03/16/594327432/as-bodies-are-pulled-from-rubble-questions-mount-about-miami-bridge>