Disastrous Engineering Failures Due to Unethical Practices of Engineers

Engineering has had a significant role in influencing the way the world works. In many cases, the technologies and creations introduced throughout the last several decades have been amazing.

However, there have also been plenty of disastrous engineering failures that have caused immense harm and destruction. Many of these failures have been due to the unethical practices of engineers: carelessness, underestimations, negligence, problems in the design and safety protocol are some to name.

In the aftermath of engineering disasters, however, professionals and leaders have spent a long time learning from the decisions that were made. And in this blog, we explore a number of the disastrous engineering failures due to unethical practices of engineers and the lessons we learned.

6 Disastrous Engineering Failures Due to Ethics

#1 The collapse of the Quebec Bridge – an engineering failure made twice

September 11, 1916, Quebec Bridge Collapse
September 11, 1916, Quebec Bridge Collapse https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_Bridge

The Quebec Bridge is a cantilever bridge that spans the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. The original bridge was designed by American engineer Theodore Cooper and constructed between 1907 and 1917. At the time, this was the largest cantilever structure attempted.

During its construction in August of 1907, the bridge collapse occurred and as a result 75 of the 86 workers on the project were killed, and 11 were injured. In just 15 seconds, the south anchor arm, cantilever arm, and partially completed suspended span fell 150 feet (45 m) into the St. Lawrence River. [1]

Later the Canadian government decided the project must be completed in order to build the railway connection. Construction resumed in 1913. By September 1916, the bridge was nearly finished, with the exception of hoisting the center span and connecting it to the cantilever arms. This time the span tore away from its lifts and plummeted into the water, killing 13 construction workers and injuring several others.

Finally, the bridge was completed and opened to traffic one year later in 1917. The Quebec Bridge disaster is considered to be one of the worst engineering practice failures in history.

What went wrong?

The failure was neither linked to detailing, fabrication, or material quality, according to the commissioners who investigated the case at that time. It was due to bad engineering design, they said. [2]

The commission would conclude that one of the most vital compression members buckled, causing the collapse. The board members charged two men, consulting engineer Theodore Cooper and P.L. Szlapka, the Phoenix Bridge Company’s Chief Designing Engineer, with causing the tragedy. [2]

The failure of the Quebec bridge serves as a warning to us all about the perils of cutting-edge initiatives and the hazards of relying on the decision of a single individual.

#2 Ford Pinto – when carelessness claims lives

Ford Pinto Failure
Ford Pinto Failure https://www.motorbiscuit.com/whatever-happened-to-the-ford-pinto/

Our second example is the Ford Pinto case. In 1970, Ford Motor Company began producing the Pinto, a small subcompact car. The automaker set out to make a competitive, affordable car, but late into the development of its design, engineers discovered an issue with the fuel tank.

The Pinto was created with a weak rear end that may burst into flames in a rear-end collision. Ford’s engineers suggested an easy fix for the problem, which would cost the company an additional $11 for each vehicle. Despite this, the firm opted to stick with the design as is, both to keep costs low and to avoid delaying production.

As a result of this decision, Pintos began to explode when involved in rear-end collisions. Ford was eventually sued for its flawed design and negligence and had to pay millions of dollars in damages.

When Ford lost a lawsuit in 1978, it recalled the Pinto and made modifications to correct what was initially advised. Some experts believe that as many as 27 to 180 people died because of the fuel tank problem. [3]

Unethical actions of the engineering firm that built the Ford Pinto.

In the case of Ford Pinto, a number of unethical decisions were made by the engineering firm. The first was to knowingly produce a car with a weak rear end. Second, and more damning, was the decision not to spend an additional $11 per car to fix the problem. This would have saved lives in the long run, but Ford chose to prioritize cost savings and speed of production over safety.

It’s important to remember that when making decisions as an engineer, you are not just responsible to your client or company, but also to the general public. Your actions can have serious consequences, like the Ford Pinto case shows.

#3 The Titanic – the sinking of a mighty “unsinkable” ship

The Titanic - the sinking of a mighty "unsinkable" ship
The Titanic – the sinking of a mighty “unsinkable” ship https://bookriot.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Titanic-sinking-1280×720.jpg

The sinking of the Titanic is one of history’s most popular engineering calamities. The passenger ship was on its first transatlantic journey from Southampton to New York in April 1912 when it collided with an iceberg and sank.

The Titanic, which was one of the largest ocean liners of its time, included 16 watertight compartments. Even if four of those chambers flooded, the ship would nevertheless float. That’s why the ship had been touted as “unsinkable”.

Because the bulkheads were not tall enough to contain the water, all six compartments flooded. [4] Some potential causes behind the Titanic’s sinking include designs that failed to take into account its size and mobility, the speed the ship was traveling, ignored warnings about the likelihood of icebergs, and other factors. [5]

According to historical records, approximately 2,200 people were aboard the ship when it went down. Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 lost their lives in the disaster. [6]

Unethical behaviors of engineers who built the Titanic

The engineering design of the Titanic is the first to consider when looking at this catastrophe. The Titanic was equipped with several cutting-edge and innovative technologies that were expected to make it the safest ship ever built. The engineers of the vessel made claims that the Titanic was “unsinkable” and that “even in the worst possible accident at sea, the ship should have stayed afloat for two to three days.”

However, the ship’s construction flaws and structural failures have led researchers to believe that safety was not a major concern while it was being built. For example, one row of safety boats was taken out of the original plan in order to make more room and provide a better view for people with first-class seats.

Other factors that researchers believe contributed to the sinking include the steel’s high sulfur content and low-temperature water, which caused the metal and rivets in the hull to severely degrade compartmentalization, causing them to sink even faster.

These ideas have all been applied to the construction of large ships as defensive precautions, and many safety rules have been put in place by engineers to prevent a recurrence of similar engineering disasters.

#4 New Orleans’ Levee System – systemic engineering failures costing lives

Failure of New Orleans Levee System during Hurricane Katrina
Failure of New Orleans Levee System during Hurricane Katrina https://medium.com/@mainkl/failure-of-new-orleans-levee-system-during-hurricane-katrina-5b010f5e25da

The levee system in New Orleans failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leading to devastating flooding in the city. The hurricane caused a storm surge of more than 25 feet (7.6 m) and affected more than 80% of the city.

Some experts believe that the levee system’s failure was due to both design and construction flaws, as well as a lack of maintenance.

The destruction of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina stands out among engineering disasters, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Systemic failures, not one particular choice, triggered the catastrophe.

What went wrong?

The Army Corps of Engineers miscalculated the soil’s strength during construction, according to their own standards, and built the system to withstand low hurricane wind speeds.

Another of many engineering blunders was the height of the levees: in addition to relying on incorrect data about land elevation, the Corps also failed to take into account natural, modest sinking. In addition, both the standard and rate of construction were affected by local, state, and federal politics, as well as inefficiency in funding and maintaining the system.

The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was particularly severe. More than 1,800 people were killed and more than $100 billion in damage was done across the Gulf Coast as a result of the storm.

#5 The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl – some disasters happen without warning

The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl plant
The nuclear disaster in Chernobyl plant https://news.nestia.com/detail/-/3929049

The Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion is one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. The accident occurred on April 26, 1986, and resulted in the release of a large amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

The disaster was caused by a faulty reactor design during the testing of safety systems on the plant’s number 4 reactor, which resulted in a series of explosions and a fire. As a result, large amounts of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere, which spread over a wide area.

The fire and cleanup operation resulted in the death of hundreds of people, with millions more in the former Soviet Union and Europe possibly affected by radiation exposure. At least 30,000 deaths of cancer patients are estimated to be caused by the disaster.

Unethical practices involved in the Chernobyl explosion.

The Chernobyl accident in 1986 was the result of a flawed reactor design that was operated with inadequately trained personnel. However, some experts also believe that the disaster could have been prevented if the plant’s workers had not been ordered to carry out an unsafe procedure.

In addition, the Soviet Union’s government attempted to cover up the extent of the disaster and its effects, which led to further loss of life. The Chernobyl disaster highlighted the dangers of nuclear power and led to increased safety measures at nuclear plants worldwide.

#6 The Apollo 13 Disaster – when design failure leads to disaster

The Apollo 13 Launch
The Apollo 13 Launch https://www.cnet.com/news/relive-nasa-apollo-13-disaster-right-now-on-its-50th-anniversary/

The Apollo 13 catastrophe is well-known, as two major Hollywood movies have been made about it. It was dubbed a “successful failure” because it was a mission to the moon, the astronauts overcame challenges, and returned home safely.

The Apollo 13 mission was launched on April 11, 1970, with the goal of landing two astronauts on the moon. However, due to a series of technical failures, the astronauts were forced to abort the landing and return to Earth.

What went wrong?

The main failure was an oxygen tank explosion that caused a loss of power and disrupted the spacecraft’s guidance system. The astronauts were then forced to use the limited power and resources available to them in order to return safely to Earth.

The command module’s systems were shut down to conserve its remaining resources for reentry, while the crew used the landing module as a lifeboat. On April 17th, the crew was brought safely home, thanks to the efforts of mission controllers.

You can read more about Apollo 13 in the book Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond.

Wrap Up

These disasters could have been avoided if the engineers involved had made better decisions or taken more caution. It is important for engineers to remember that their actions can have serious consequences, and they should always try to make the best ethical decision possible, even if it means making some sacrifices.

An engineer’s job is not easy; it involves making difficult decisions under pressure and dealing with complex problems & ethical dilemmas. However, that does not excuse unethical or careless behavior. Engineers need to be held to a high standard and should be held accountable for their actions.

Also read: Online Courses for Engineering Ethics

Professional engineers have a responsibility to society to make sure that their work is done safely and responsibly. When they fail to do so, it can have tragic consequences. It is important for engineers to learn from these mistakes and to do their best to avoid them in the future.

So, what can we learn from these disasters?

First, we should remember that engineering is a complex field and that mistakes are bound to happen. Second, we should always strive to act ethically (engineering ethics) and to make decisions that will benefit as many people as possible. Finally, we should never hesitate to speak up if we see something that doesn’t seem right. We owe it to ourselves and to the people who rely on us to be responsible and vigilant engineers.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_Bridge

[2] https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.827964/publication.html

[3] https://popularmechanics.com/cars/a6700/top-automotive-engineering-failures-ford-pinto-fuel-tanks

[4] https://nationalgeographic.org/media/sinking-of-the-titanic/

[5] https://nbcnews.com/sciencemain/10-causes-titanic-tragedy-620220

[6] https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/titanic

Aimal Khan is the founder & CEO of Engineering Passion. He is an engineer and has obtained his bachelor's degree in energy engineering from Kandahar University.