The Bridge of San Luis Rey
It was one of those headline events you couldn’t have missed: high-rise condo collapsed in the middle of the night. The event was catastrophic, tragic – but hardly unexpected. Three years earlier an inspection report found the building’s design prevented water from running off the decking and provided evidence of significant damage in the form of cracked concrete and corroded rebar. Making matters worse, shortcuts in installing rebar might have been taken during construction and subsidence was a known problem with other buildings in the area.
Combine subsidence, standing water, and saltwater – this was a beachfront condo – clearly this was a problem in desperate need of a solution.
It wasn’t like nobody did nothing. Repairs were undertaken a couple of years ago, but the extent of the damage proved to be a lot bigger than the planned solution. A $15 million project was on the drawing board, but paper doesn’t solve a problem like this.
Like so many failures, there’s plenty for investigators to figure out. No doubt they will, someday. As for this day, there’s a lot to be learned from this tragedy, and you don’t have to wait around to read an official report to appreciate what’s obvious.
Civil failures such as this are unusual, but hardly unprecedented. A couple of decades ago, right in the middle of rush hour a bridge on Interstate 35 in Minneapolis collapsed, plunging drivers into the river. Just like the condo, there had been an inspection report that found problems and repairs were undertaken. Regrettably, the biggest problem was undiscovered: a major design flaw in that the joints connecting the structural members were significantly undersized. Had that been understood, 300 tons of construction equipment and repair materials would not have been stationed on the bridge. It proved too great a load for the bridge to sustain.
Not that any commuter would have ever known any of that.
Two decades earlier, a walkway inside a Hyatt Regency in Kansas City collapsed killing more than a hundred people at the hotel for a big party. The root cause was a flawed design – the walkway could barely support its own weight – and faulty construction – the lower walkway was wrongly suspended to the one above. Add in fifty or so partygoers on the walkway, the load was just too great to bear.
That problem became clear to the investigators; it should have been to the designers. But it’s not something hotel guests would think to worry about.
More than a century ago – in 1907 – a bridge being constructed over the St Lawrence River collapsed. When the structure fell into the river, every single person working on the bridge was injured; seventy-five perished. The cause of the failure was simple: the bridge was not able to support its own weight, let alone its carrying weight. During construction, structural beams starting bending, but it was not enough to stop work.
At least not until the structure failed.
What do these three cases have in common, besides being bridges? The technical experts trusted to perform their duties and responsibilities to design safe structures failed to do so.
A fact that did not escape notice by the investigators. The Commission for the Quebec Bridge wrote: “The failure….to appoint an experienced bridge engineer to the position of chief engineer was a mistake.” The owner of the engineering firm designing the Hyatt Regency also served as chief engineer and took full responsibility for the design flaws. The NTSB found fault with the I-35 bridge design firm who failed to perform the necessary load calculations. Inadequate oversight by technical experts working for the highway department, who ok’d the design, didn’t help.
You might be thinking, “You have to go back one hundred years find three similar examples to that condo collapse.” You would not be wrong. May I remind you: civil failures such as these are rare.
If nothing else, the next time you cross a bridge you might want to say thanks to those who designed it correctly. For good measure, throw in a thank you to those who built it to spec, and inspected and maintained the bridge properly. Otherwise, you might wind up a traveler, precipitated into the gulf below. Don’t think it can’t happen.
But giving thanks – with a clear sense of relief – is not something you do in situations like these. Nobody does. We all place our trust in every bridge being safe.
Most of the time they are.
To trust is “to act with faith and confidence.” Trust is something you do all the time; yet rarely do you pause to enumerate – let alone evaluate whether or not your trust was wisely placed. Were it otherwise, you’d drive yourself – and everyone – crazy.
But when a condo or bridge collapses, you would do well to reflect on the matter of trust: yours and others.
Something as simple as your drive to work serves as the perfect example: how many acts of faith do you make while in route? Trust me: no sooner will you start counting than you will want to stop, because this will drive you nuts. Start with trusting that the steering and brakes on your car won’t fail. Oncoming motorists will stay in their lane. Approaching vehicles won’t run through stop signs and stop lights. The bridges you cross will support the weight of your vehicle – and everyone else’s. Mix a little bad weather into the example, like wet streets or poor visibility due to fog, and the extent of your trust escalates.
Fortunately, most of the time nothing happens on the drive to prove your trust was misplaced.
But suppose you were to assume nothing and trust nobody. You have neither the time, nor the expertise, nor the information, nor the capability to evaluate these things for yourself. You have no choice but trust just about everyone and everything.
That’s how life works.
If your personal safety on your drive to work is based a large part on trust, what changes when you get to the job? Who are you trusting? What are you trusting? And who’s trusting you, and what you do to make your living?
That is how work works.
For more than two decades, I’ve had the privilege to teach safety leadership and management principles and practices to leaders the world over. Spending quality time with upwards of a hundred thousand of your industrial peers, I am amazed and impressed by leaders who are united in their desire to see to it that every one of their followers goes home alive and well at the end of every day.
Every once in while I’ll see someone sitting in my safety leadership class who just doesn’t seem to care. They’ll have their face in a computer, not the least bit interested or involved in what’s being taught. When that happens, I can’t help but stick my nose in their business.
“So, what’s your role in the outfit?” I’ll ask.
“Oh, I’m an engineer, not a leader. My boss told me I have to come to class. But really, I’m not responsible for safety.”
“Not responsible for safety. You sure about that?”
“Absolutely. I don’t have anyone working for me. Safety’s not my job.”
Next time that happens – it will – now I’ll have to ask one more question. “If safety’s not your job, nobody is depending on you for their safety, right?”
It’s one of those obvious things from that condo collapse that I don’t need to wait to read the official investigation report to have learned – and put into practice.
Neither do you.
The Ultimate Team Game
At this point, I doubt you need my help to connect up the dots. This is all so obvious. There’s much more to going home alive and well at the end of the day than just what each of us does to keep ourselves safe. In the big world in which we live – and the smaller world in which we work – the work to design, build, operate, inspect and maintain are critical elements in the safety process.
Every person who performs each of those functions plays a critical role in safety. When someone performs one of those poorly, lives are put at risk. Ironically – even unfairly – it isn’t usually their life that’s in harm’s way: it’s the lives of others, who have no choice but to trust they performed their work well.
Like a bridge that breaks, a condo that collapses serves as to remind us all of a simple truth about safety: it is the ultimate team game!