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On Honest Engineering Discourse

TJIC links to this great story about the engineer for the Citicorp building who realized, after the building was erected and occupied, that he had made a mistake that could make the building unsafe in high wind loads.  He raised his hand, called a penalty stroke on himself, and got the thing fixed when many others might have rationalized away taking action.  Fortunately, he was respected for doing so:

Before the city officials left, they commended LeMessurier for his courage and candor, and expressed a desire to be kept informed as the repair work progressed. Given the urgency of the situation, that was all they could reasonably do. "It wasn't a case of 'We caught you, you skunk,'" Nusbaum says. "It started with a guy who stood up and said, 'I got a problem, I made the problem, let's fix the problem.' If you're gonna kill a guy like LeMessurier, why should anybody ever talk?"

I continue to worry, though, that we are actively aligning incentives against having a quality, open engineering dialog.  In any engineering discussion, I don't think there has been a good safety dialog unless someone takes the position that the design (or drug, or whatever) is still unsafe.  Someone needs to advocate the position that the plan is unsafe even if that position is a straw man.  An open process encourages everyone to raise potential issues, even if these issues turn out not to be problems.

Unfortunately, in court, the very existance of such a discussion is used as evidence of liability.  Plaintiff's lawyers wave internal memos at juries showing them that concern existed about safety.  The very healthy definition of a good safety engineering process - a concern and discussion about safety - is turned into evidence of its lack.  More here.

Posted on April 14, 2008 at 09:49 AM | Permalink

Comments

I don't know about Engineering (and IANAL), but the legal hack we use in other industries is to have a policy that we follow for [task]. For instance, some companies delete all of the e-mails pertaining to an issue they're going to be sued on because they're just following their old and well-documented e-mail retention policy. So in this case, you'd have a policy that each building design undergoes some sort of 'challenge' by other engineers as a standard part of the development process.

Posted by: Erik The Red | Apr 14, 2008 1:57:40 PM

With chemical plant you do a formal Hazard and Operability study, the whole point of which is to identify worries. You must do those in the US surely?

Posted by: dearieme | Apr 14, 2008 2:52:36 PM

In the automotive field we don't usually call something safe or unsafe. Those are conclusions and value judgments. Design 1 isn't 'safer' it lasted 242% more cycles at peak vehicle loads before cracking was observed. Design 2 wasn't chosen because it only lasted 150 thousand cycles.

Brakes are 'safe' or 'unsafe' They stop the vehicle within 30 meters under specific conditions or they stop the vehicle in 60 meters under the same condition.


Posted by: Garble | Apr 15, 2008 3:26:50 AM

That's why you do everything verbally and don't write anything down.

Posted by: ParatrooperJJ | Apr 15, 2008 6:17:27 AM

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