Bridges rarely fail. At least that’s what some people say, claiming that they tend to be “overengineered,” if there is such a thing. That’s little comfort to the families and friends of the six people that lost their lives earlier this month under the collapse of a pedestrian bridge in Miami, Florida.

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Source: Palm Beach Post

I happened to be in Florida myself, when I turned on the news to see the horrific story of the FIU bridge collapse, unsure at the time how many people had been killed. What resonated with me was the irony that something designed with the intention of making people’s lives safer, was in fact the same thing that killed them.

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Source: CNN

There are still answers to be found and blame to be placed. The search for an explanation isn’t intended to  overstep, or to be intrusive. But as one Canadian engineer’s Youtube channel best puts it, as he “crowdsources” with hundreds of thousands of engineers, it’s for the mere sake of finding out “what the fu*k went wrong…. and how we can prevent it.”

The tragedy got the attention of construction companies around the world. It certainly got my attention.  It also brought with it, the blunt reminder that despite the popular and belaboured discussions in our industry on topics such as aesthetics and design and policies dictating affordability and suite size, (yes, they matter too) the most important factor has always been, and should always be, the delivery of  infrastructure and buildings that are structurally safe and sound.

Like most things however, when all is going well, we tend to take this for granted. Most reminders and perspective come in the form of tragedy. Some however, do not.

One subtle reminder I recall, was at a meeting with a real estate lawyer about a year ago.  As the lawyer walked in with his “baggage,” I chuckled at his oversized, bursting and tattered accordion file, nearing at least 10 pounds in weight and 18 inches in width. It was becoming a bit of an exhaustive file, to tell you the truth. I asked if he was losing sleep at night with the belaboured work,  consuming both of us. He chuckled and replied, “Who me? Oh no, I can sleep well at night. I’m not the one who builds the buildings.”

It was (what shouldn’t have been) a reminder of the magnitude of the responsibility.

History can also serve as a good reminder. The incident in Miami immediately reminded me of the Quebec Bridge (spanning the St. Lawrence River) collapse in 1907 by an American engineer, Theodore Cooper. Ironically, Cooper wrote the textbook when it came to bridge design.

Source: Canadianencyclopedia

That was to no avail however, when design errors and miscalculations caused 75 men working on the bridge to lose their lives upon its collapse. Cooper “ignored too many warnings and shrugged off too many doubts as investment mounted and construction advanced.” A second attempt to build the bridge, resulted in the same.

This was the catalyst for reforms being placed on the engineering profession, such as licensing. It was also the same decade a group of Canadian engineers devised the ritual that we now know as the “Iron Ring Ceremony,” highlighting the responsibility and obligations of engineers to public safety.

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The Quebec Bridge story is used in the ceremony as a blatant reminder of the outcome, when their work is not done “properly.” An iron ring is placed on the little finger of the dominant hand with intention to serve as a physical reminder as it rubs against everything their hand touches and that they create. The shape of the ring itself, with its rough edges, symbolizes inexperience, humility and a commitment to continued learning.  With time, the edges accordingly soften as engineers gain experience and insight.

The Iron Ring ceremony focuses on moral tenets – the commitment to maintain a moral centre amidst external pressure – an understanding of the broad impact on society – the responsibility to make ethical choices and decision making that stems from the desire to maintain the highest possible standard to their profession. Not bad, when you consider the potential catastrophe that can result from their work, if “improperly done.”

These obligations are front and centre to all engineers, as they should be. And yet we still end up with stories such as the one from earlier this March, where infrastructure fails.

Wherever the blame may fall, the lesson learned seems a familiar one. Safety is never one person, one department or one company’s responsibility. It is a shared one. It takes all of us. But it is clearly easier said than done.

A lot of the media coverage regarding the bridge collapse seemed to centre on the theme of TIME, which is our number one commodity, and is finite. We live in a world with a near anorexic mindset, we lean toward bragging about our minimalistic consumption of it.

The main span of the bridge was prefabricated and then swung into position in a single day. This unique design was intended to reduce traffic delays on the six-lane road it would be spanning. The plan was to install the bridge’s final supports while traffic was once again allowed to flow underneath the still-unfinished span.”

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Source: FIU News

The bridge was referred to as a “marvel” with a 950 ton section built with ABC – Accelerated Bridge Construction.  “This method of construction reduces potential risks to workers, commuters and pedestrians and minimizes traffic interruptions. The main span of the FIU-Sweetwater UniversityCity Bridge was installed in a few hours with limited disruption to traffic over this weekend.” This one day triumph doesn’t seem so worthy, in hindsight.

We all know that time is money. Of course, we all want to save time. Of course we all want to save money. But never, at the expense of a life. Or six. That is not worth any amount of savings.

And so the moral of the story is that despite no certainties in life, I am certain of a few things.

I am certain that despite increasing pressure to deliver more efficiently in terms of time and money, safety still must come first. An expressed core value that stares our company boldly in the face every day – followed by the two words with big impact “Never compromised.”

I am certain that despite being cautious every time I visit a construction site, I will continue to have a quiet confidence in the structure I’m standing in and all of the people that had a hand in creating in.

I am certain that as mentioned, safety is all of our concern, with a shared commitment that if you see something, you say something.

Unfortunately, my own certainties don’t add up to sleeping better at night – you still get affected when you hear about tragedies like the FIU bridge and yes, you lose sleep, particularly when it hits close to home and it’s in a related field.

The only positive I see, is that it draws experts together that have a shared conviction to understand, and to prevent it from ever happening again. That sounds like a goal we can all strive for. Let’s strive for “overengineered.”

— My thoughts & prayers to all those suffering as a result of this tragedy.

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