Ethical Issues in Tacoma Narrows Bridge

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Ethics which define as the moral principles is one of the things that engineers must concern about. One of the case studies that include ethical problems and mistakes done by engineers is “The failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in 1940.” Tacoma Narrow Bridge, opened in July 1940, is the third longest suspension bridge in the world at that time mentioned by Anon (1970) and is well known as “the most dramatic failure in bridge engineering history” claimed by WSDOT (2007). The collapse of the bridge was caused by many factors. This essay will outline the potential ethical issues caused by engineers with some principles and implications of ethics and values in the practice of engineering.

According to Engineering (2006), the plan to build Tacoma Narrow Bridge in Washington started in 1928 when Tacoma Chamber of Commerce began to research and decided to build a bridge to replace the ferry system which was the only way people use to cross the river at that time. The bridge was designed by Clark Eldridge in the first place with estimated total cost of 11 million US Dollars. The construction began in 1938 with only 7 million US Dollars budget. As a result in cut of budge, the bridge could not be built with the original design was remodelled by Leon Moisseiff. The new designed from Moisseiff,who was a famous from designing golden gate bridge, was to build a very slim bridge in order to spend less cost on the production which later on became the final design of the bridge. Just before the bridge is built, contractors claimed that it was impossible to build with the new design since it was impractical to build the foundation piers according to his design therefore, the original design from Eldridge was used to build piers instead. The budget for bridge construction was still 7 million US dollars stated by Tyrel (2016).

There were some ethical issues before the bridge construction began. According to IMechE Code of Conduct Regulation (2009) CR 5.3 “Members shall present and review engineering evidence, theory and interpretation honestly, accurately and without bias and quantify all risks and shall be or become aware of the risks of failing to achieve objectives, whether concerning performance, cost or time and take account of the consequences of any such failure and inform their employer or client.” One of the ethical issues can be pointed out from the designing stage. The second design was not 100% practical and required the use of first design. This shows that the engineers have not reviewed the theory accurately to make sure that it is possible to construct. The engineers mainly focused on reducing the cost by making design cheap to make. They did not pay enough attention on the performance of the bridge and do not take account of the increase in probability of bridge failure. This shows that they lack of responsibility in their duty and act without care. The action made by the team also oppose the statement of ethical principles from Raeng (2017) which points out that “Engineering professionals have a duty to acquire and use wisely the understanding, knowledge and skills needed to perform their role. They should always act with care.”

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At that time, engineers did not clearly understand all the forces that act on the bridge and what it does to the suspension bridge mentioned by Irvine (2009). Since the budget was cut down, worker tried several methods to minimise cost. From Engineering’s (2006) research stated that one of the techniques was using dry ice to make the girders that does not fit to be able to fit in each other. Despite laborer experienced many dangerous circumstances, there was only one death which was a builder fell down from 12 foot slant during construction. From the time that the floor was formed, there was an obvious vibration occurred. The engineers involved in the project could not find the solution to this problem but the construction did not stop.

Engineering ethics pointed out that “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.” Engineers involved in this project does not prioritise safety and health. In order to control the amount of money spent, they allow workers to use ”creative techniques” as pointed out above which no one guarantees that it is a safe method to build and is standardised to use as a structure of the bridge. In addition to this, the construction site is not safe enough since there was one worker slipped down resulting in death. This suggested that there was some ethical issue due to IMechE Code of Conduct Regulation (2009) CR 11.2 “Members shall recognise the importance of socio-economic and environmental factors and shall minimise and justify any adverse effect on wealth creation, the natural environment and social justice by ensuring that all developments, throughout their life, use best practical and economic solutions to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs and place responsibility for the welfare, health and safety of the workforce and wider community at all times before responsibility to the profession or other sectional interests”. Furthermore, during the beginning stage of bridge construction, they recognise the oscillation of bridge but could not find ways to solve. The engineers continue to construct the bridge even though the vibration problem was not clearly solved. This oppose what UKEssays (2017) pointed out about moral and ethics in professional duties that engineers should understand ways to solve the problem.

The bridge was finally opened on 1st July 1940 and later on received a nickname called “Galloping Gertie” which means a bouncing bridge. The bridge smoothly move up and down even in normal wind mentioned by Harish (2019). According to HISTORY (2019), about four months later on 7th November 1940 the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse due to high winds. At 10:00am, something snapped and the bridge started to oscillate and twisted in opposite direction with very high amplitude (28 feet higher in one edge then lower in another). 30 minutes later, the whole bridge cracked and crashed down at 11:10am. At that moment, there was one car on the bridge. The car owner ran away leaving the car and a dog. The dog went down with the car and died. Fuller (2000) pointed out that “Tacoma Narrows Bridge was by far the longest and most expensive suspension bridge to collapse due to interaction with the wind.” According to Siegel, E. (n.d.), The failure of bridge was first believe that it was caused by resonance but it was totally misunderstood because the bridge was not even undulating at its resonant frequency at all. The real cause came from an aerodynamic phenomenon called fluttering effect. The plate girder built in Tacoma Narrows Bridge was made of carbon steel sealed in solid block therefore, wind must pass through at the top and bottom which makes the bridge become bouncy stated by Bridge Masters (2017). The breakdown of the bridge raises awareness and make many engineers be awaken to conduct experiments related to bridge structure in a wind tunnel claimed by Harish (2019).

The failure of bridge leads to many unethical concerns. It against the statement of ethical principles for the engineering profession claimed by Raeng (2017) that engineers should respect for life and environment. There is an evidence that bridge was oscillating even in normal days but the engineers still let the bridge open for public to use even though it is dangerous this results in one death from a dog. There will be no life lost if the bridge was closed until the problem was fully solved. Lifes should not be risked from error and failures. Furthermore, the failure of the bridge left many fractions of bridge body that sinks down into the water and also some small part became dust in the air. This can polluted both air and water which damage the environment nearby. However, this incident raises awareness of engineers throughout the world to pay more attention to wind. If the bridge was not collapse, the knowledge and technology used to build bridges nowadays might not improve.

In conclusion, to prevent ethical issues that occur the engineers should concentrate more on the design that is strong enough to withstand the wind. If the cost was reduced and there is not enough budget to build a safe bridge then they should reconsider or find a safe ways to construct. They should solve the oscillation problem while constructing and use standard procedure to build the bridge. Health and safety must be the first thing to be concerned about. The bridge must not be open and use until there is no vibration on the bridge so that nobody’s life is at risk.

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