COVID-19 and an initial forensic task a.k.a a visual site assessment, sans social distancing

Like mine, your work has possibly slowed a little because of COVID-19.  For that matter, I’m sure most practices and vocations.

However, we can and should follow through on one forensic task: An initial visual assessment of a failure or accident site, as soon as possible after an incident.  It’s just as important during COVID-19 days and just as easy.

This is also a forensic task that quite often is all that is necessary in determining probable cause, and quite often, cost effective in the extreme.

It’s also important to be seen to have done this by the parties to a dispute or claim.  It’s easier to explain doing too much than too little.  COVID-19 would not cut it as an excuse for not getting on site as soon as possible.

COVID-19 is not a good reason because an initial visual site assessment is carried out by the forensic expert alone. Social distancing is not a problem when you’re walking around a site by yourself doing things like the following:

  1. Noting the features in the terrain, in general, or on the site, in particular, relevant to the accident or failure,
  2. Examining the exposed surfaces of the failed structure and how it was initially constructed and it’s condition now,
  3. Measuring the parts of the structure or component that failed,
  4. Examining the surface where the victim slipped and fell,
  5. Taking terrestrial and aerial photographs and video, and, generally,
  6. Getting calibrated to the site.

Neither is social distancing a problem when taking a briefing by phone, e-mail or Zoom.  Nor reviewing documents sent by courier.


I recently looked at e-mailed photographs of the scene of a slip and fall.  The probable cause was known but not who was responsible.  I was able to identify from the photographs the three investigative tasks needed for determining responsibility.  One task was getting some accurate measurements on site – rough ones were possible from the photographs – plus getting that calibrating visit under my belt.

But, as I type this, it occurs to me that one of the other three tasks could be carried out in a very preliminary way and indicate probable responsibility.


However, we do need to get on site quickly after an incident because physical and environmental conditions change and important data can be lost.  This is the case whether it’s a breaking-news, catastrophic failure or a tiny component failure, a terrible accident or a seemingly “simple” slip and fall.  Examples of important data include:

  1. The volume of oil in the ground and the ground water after a fuel oil spill; (the change in volume depends on subsoil conditions and the topography)
  2. The location of the plume of contamination on the water table – think, a pool of oil in the shape of a feather with the big end downstream; (the location changes, sometimes very quickly, and this is important data)
  3. The condition of the floor surface at the location of a slip and fall accident; (this can change quickly)
  4. The height of flood water; (changes very quickly)
  5. Weather conditions after a crane collapses or a bridge fails; (this changes quickly but micro weather records sometimes exist)
  6. The size and configuration of cracks in a wall; (these features of a crack can change fairly quickly and often get worse)
  7. Tidal conditions at the location of a seaside structural failure; (changes cyclically)
  8. Sagging floors in a building; (are they sagging more?)
  9. Foundation conditions causing a building to vibrate; (these conditions change seasonally when they’re causing a problem)

Often, as indicated above, an initial visual assessment can point confidently at the probable cause of a failure or accident.  For example:

  1. I knew why a gabion wall failed on the coast as soon as I saw it, and it wasn’t coastal erosion (a gabion is a wire basket filled with rock)
  2. I also knew why a building vibrated in the winter as soon as I saw the sloping site and how the foundations were constructed
  3. The cause of a slip and fall accident on a wet floor in a dry sauna came to me on the drive back to my office – and where the water came from – after visually examining the site
  4. I knew why a furnace oil tank collapsed into a trench spilling oil everywhere based on a virtual visual site assessment – a study of site plans and photographs taken by others (I wasn’t permitted to go on site nor even drive the road nearby)

And if a more detailed and intrusive investigation is needed – none was in the bulleted examples above except skid-resistance testing on the slippery sauna floor – then the visual site assessment ensures more investigation is well planned.

For sure, COVID-19 might delay additional investigation till the lock-down was lifted –  but it can’t delay a visual site assessment by a lonely forensic engineering expert.  

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