Judicial Inquiry: “Human failings” caused Elliot Lake mall collapse – Globe and Mail, October 16, 2014

It was the breadth of the human failings that shocked me.  Not the fact that human failings played a part in the collapse – they do often enough when a structure falls down.  What troubled me is that they ran much of the gamut of our darker side, including incompetence and greed, and were exhibited by all parties involved with the mall in it’s 33 year life.

(On the flip side, however, I was impressed by the thoroughness of the judicial investigation.  Also, with the commissioner shooting from the hip and telling it like it is after the findings were in.  Nice that)

If there is a common denominator in the human failings a case could be made for “money” being the one – getting and keeping as much as you can.  Nothing wrong with money except when it blunts your moral and ethical fibre and gets in the way of doing the right thing.

It`s not difficult to believe undue interest in money was there decades ago during the planning of the mall – the developer wanting the most structure for the least money spent.  Then fast forward to a few weeks before the collapse when the engineer signed off on the structure knowing it was unstable - for certain with a view to being retained again and being paid for his services.  And the undue interest in money on the part of the many private and public parties involved in the mall each year over the decades right up to the collapse.

(Be assured: In all my years, I’ve never heard of a professional engineer deliberately falsifying his report.  I’ve been around the block a few times and seen a few things but never this)

We can be excused for wondering how many other structures are on the verge of collapse that we don`t know about - due to similar human failings.  We know about the mall because it fell down.  There are bridges on the east coast that are in poor condition.  But we know about these and the problem is being addressed.  What about the structures that we don`t know about?

I blogged a couple of years ago – shortly after the mall collapsed, about construction inspection and maintenance being the Achilles’ heels of project development, and touched on it again a few weeks ago.  Inadequate construction inspection is almost like a default human failing.  But this singular weakness in project development is not of the breadth and blatancy of the human failings that brought the mall down.

We have our problems in forensic engineering investigation – a development project in a sense to an engineer, where investigations ”fail”, that is, they are inadequate because of human failings on the part of owners, counsel, and engineers.  The parties often failing by taking little interest to understand what’s involved in forensic work and that thorough and objective investigations are expensive.

We can’t always prevent the tragic effects of human failings on the built environment any more than we can prevent sick people murdering soldiers and shooting up our parliament.  We must recognize and expect that these tragic events will happen – human nature being what it is, learn from them, and press on.

It helps to focus on the fact that there are few structures in the built environment that are in grossly poor condition and on the verge of collapse.  Fortunately, very, very few, I believe, knowing the engineering profession as I do.  At the same time, however, to recognize that there are some structures in poor condition - but not about to collapse.  Structures that are malfunctioning, performing poorly, and costing money that someone would like to keep and hang onto.


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