I just read the National Transportation Safety Board’s press release and a synopsis of its report announcing the probable cause of the I-35W bridge collapse. (See "NTSB cites design errors for I-35W bridge collapse.") Reading these documents made me so sad. Certainly, it brought to mind the terror the passengers in the 111 vehicles in the failed portion of the bridge must have experienced, the profound loss of the families whose loved ones died or were severely injured, and the life-long memory of the ordeal for the first responders and volunteers who helped with the search and rescue. But it also reminded me of the pain, guilt, and sadness the designers, design reviewers, bridge inspectors, contractors, and all of the others involved in the design, construction, maintenance, and management of the bridge must have felt when this tragedy happened, and likely continue to deal with everyday. I can’t even imagine how I would cope if one of my projects failed and injured people.
I remember my professors impressing upon us as students how critical our work is, how necessary thorough review and attention to detail is, and how significant the consequences of our mistakes could be. The point was made and not forgotten; however, like you, it is shuffled aside in the day-to-day grind. There is no professor reminding us of this point when our work is hurried or when we should have asked for help, but didn’t.
The fact that the I-35W Bridge failed because of inadequately designed gusset plates—an avoidable human error—is a sharp reminder that we cannot be lackadaisical in our work, no matter how routine or immaterial one aspect of a design may seem. The tragedy underscores the importance of routine quality control practices and other safeguards to ensure the best quality designs possible. Checklists, internal peer reviews, diverse teams, rigorous documentation, and other protocols must be part of the design process to diminish the chance of avoidable errors as much as possible. Further, objective evaluation of best practices and quality control procedures must be conducted whenever design process or protocol changes are made, and certainly when team members change. On an individual, design team, and firm or organization level, peer review of quality control procedures could be a time-intensive exercise that reaps huge gains in the future. Besides the emotional ramifications to individuals or a firm if a tragic failure of a design occurs, just imagine the cost of associated lawsuits, as well as lost business because of a damaged reputation.
So today, do something to improve the quality of your work: ask a co-worker to review the design you are working on or offer to review your colleague’s design, take an online course within your area of practice to refresh yourself on design procedures, or initiate a review of your team or firm’s quality control procedures. If many of our 50,000 readers do this and thousands of reader’s firms commit to making quality control a focus in 2009, our profession’s next year will be one not marked by sadness, but pride in knowing that we are doing everything we can to keep the public as safe as possible.