What is forensic engineering?

I saw reference in a magazine to a student who expressed interested in forensic engineering. (Ref. 1) I wondered what I would tell her if asked. I came up with the following after a bit of thought:

  1. Describe the work and give a few examples
  2. Stress the importance of being thorough and objective!
  3. Note, of course, that forensic engineers serve the judicial process
  4. But also note that most disputes settle out of court, fortunately
  5. Get ready to be surprised at the great number of different categories of experts – many 1,000s
  6. Stay in your sandbox if you do get into forensic work!
  7. Think about where you might practice in future
  8. Get a basic degree
  9. Get experience

For sure, define the work. Remind them that engineers, in general, apply science and mathematics to make materials and the energy in nature useful to people. Materials like steel, concrete, wood, plastic, water, and soil and rock.

Forensic engineers, in particular, apply science to determine the cause of problems in the built and natural environments. To figure out what sometimes goes wrong.

Give examples, like why a building or a tank collapses, the ground sinks, a bridge fails, a crane falls, the land slides, a nail gun misfires, a property floods or is contaminated, a road washes out or a person slips and falls.

At the same time remembering when doing this that our clients have budgets, time frames and interests that are sometimes at odds with a forensic expert’s need to be thorough and objective.

When a dispute arises from a problem and the matter goes to court, a forensic engineer serves the judicial process even though the engineer has been retained by one of the parties to the dispute. Hence the adjective forensic meaning ‘belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts of law or to public discussion and debate’. (Ref. 2) Fortunately, more than 90% of disputes are settled out of court.

A student should note the different engineering disciplines that identify the cause of problems. For example, civil, mechanical, electrical, bio-mechanical and environmental. Also note associations like the American Society of Civil Engineers and others in the US, Canada and elsewhere representing the interests of these disciplines.

S/he should research the different categories of forensic expertise that have developed – many 1,000s – by visiting a site like www.seakexperts.com. (also see Ref. 3) SEAK, Inc. is an expert training firm in the U.S. that offers courses on expert work. Expert Communication, Inc at www.expertcommunications.com is another in the U.S. that guides forensic experts.

Knowing the different disciplines, and the multitude of categories, will help a student know what specialty to follow in forensic engineering, if their interest continues to develop. It will also help you to stay in your sand box when practicing – do what you’re qualified to do, nothing else.

I think a student must get a basic degree in engineering then practice for a while. The way forward will then come into focus and the additional studying and courses needed.

I searched a little on line for graduate degrees in forensic engineering. I saw courses mentioned but no degrees during my quick search. I’m certain there is something out there. A student should evaluate carefully what is offered and it’s recognition by the public.

I saw courses offered in forensic archaeology in the U.S. and England in a practical encyclopedia on that field of study. (Ref. 4. A good read on engineering?) For certain there are comparable courses in forensic engineering, and maybe degrees.

Skimming through the encyclopedia I was struck by how the basic detailed investigation in forensic archaeology, and the methods used, echoes that in my work, and I’m sure in other disciplines. Sounds boring but here goes: Gather data. Analyse data. Draw conclusions. Form opinion. Repeat, if additional data comes in and your initial hypothesis as to cause must be modified.

Thinking about where you might practice will be important. The nature and methods of forensic engineering will vary some. For example, the 256 blogs at www.ericjorden.com/blog give some indication of the nature and methods of forensic engineering investigation and expert services on the East Coast of Canada.

Soon, experience will present to you as important in forensic work. There are many engineers with basic degrees, no more – but lots of experience – that are well regarded in their field. Their are also many highly regarded experts in the categories identified by SEAK, Inc. that have no university degrees at all – just lots and lots of experience.

Still, if you have an interest in forensic engineering, a basic degree won’t hurt. And it will enable you to earn a living while you get experience.

References

  1. The Engineer, Nova Scotia’s Source for Engineering News, Summer/Fall 2021
  2. McGraw Hill dictionary
  3. Super experts: Only in the U.S. of A., you say? Posted August 24, 2021
  4. Catling, Christopher and Bahn, Paul, The Complete Practical Encyclopedia of Archaeology, 2013 Hermes House, Leicestershire, UK info@anness.com (This looks like a good read for insight on engineering through the millennium, sans computers and construction equipment)

(Posted by Eric E. Jorden, M.Sc., P.Eng. Consulting Professional Engineer, Forensic Engineer, Geotechnology Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada September 28, 2021 ejorden@eastlink.ca)   

Real and virtual visual site assessments

A visual site assessment – either Real or Virtual – is a valuable task in the investigation of a personal injury or a failure in the built environment. I explain this in the Bundle of Blogs below that I posted in the past. This type of assessment is particularly valuable during COVID-19.

In a Real assessment, the forensic expert does the following tasks:

  1. Gets briefed by the client
  2. Reads documentation on what happened
  3. Goes to the scene of the personal injury or failure,
  4. Examines the exposed surfaces at the site
  5. Notes what’s there and what’s not
  6. Takes some measurements
  7. Also some photographs
  8. Perhaps gets video from a drone
  9. Gets “calibrated” to the site (Ref. 1)

S/he does not do the following that come later if required:

  1. Look below the surface
  2. Take things apart
  3. Do intrusive field testing, or
  4. Laboratory testing

What is done during the Real assessment process is not too much different from the SOAP (Subjective Objective Assessment Plan) and Differential Diagnosis processes in medicine. (Refs 2, 3)

A lot of data and evidence is gathered this way, sometimes enough to reason to a conclusion and form an opinion on cause sufficient to resolve a dispute or settle a claim.

A Virtual assessment – sans site visit – is also good, and sometimes enough. If it has a shortcoming, the expert doesn’t get “calibrated” to the site as well as he might. Nor get his hands dirty and mud on his boots. (Ref. 4)

I’ve done several virtual assessments including one a few months ago at the scene of a trip and fall accident. Others were of retaining wall failures, a bridge collapse, several building collapses and a trench cave-in.

One assessment resolved an 11 year dispute after a four month forensic investigation. A person was injured by ice falling off a structure. In hindsight, that visual site assessment was half real and half virtual – I examined the exposed surfaces with binoculars from across the street.

At the time of this investigation I got insight into the formation and risk of ice on structures during a ski trip to Mont Comi on the Gaspe Peninsula. The penny dropped as I came and went from the ski lodge. Ice formed at the eaves trough till it got too heavy and fell off. Signs warned skiers of this. I also saw ice on buildings during a visit to my daughter’s horse farm in Maine. Forensic engineers are working even when they’re not.

***

In the following, I’ve listed a few recent blogs on Real and Virtual visual site assessments that are particularly relevant in COVID-19 times. I’ve posted others in the last nine years but the following are enough.

At the end of the day, while a visual site assessment, real or virtual, is often enough to resolve a dispute or claim, there are situations where field work must be carried out.

A Bundle of Blogs: The value of Real and Virtual Visual Site Assessments

  1. How do you carry out a forensic investigation during a pandemic? Posted January 8, 2021 The blog notes the value of plain old engineering experience. But, when coupled with a virtual visual site assessment, invaluable and more reliable still. Three engineers found the same cause of a building collapsing, two based on experience alone. The third based on experience plus a virtual visual site assessment.
  2. COVID-19 and forensic engineering investigation. Posted May 7, 2020 It struck me one morning while walking my dogs that forensic engineering investigation is not prevented by COVID-19.  Experts often work alone as principal investigators conferring with other specialists as needed.  Many of the most experienced experts are sole practitioners.  We already “work from home” in a sense and have for years.
  3. COVID-19 and an initial forensic task a.k.a. a visual site assessment, sans social distancing. Posted June 1, 2020 The blog reminds us that the visual site assessment is carried out by a lonely expert whether on site or virtually. Social distancing is not an issue. It also reminds us that it’s an essential task that should be done before the dust settles at the site of a failure or accident.
  4. Get on site and do a forensic visual assessment before COVID-19 returns. Posted September 10, 2020 This seems a bit of a joke this day as a fourth wave threatens us. But the blog does contain nice comment on how document review, virtual site assessment and on-scene assessments work together to yield a lot of data and evidence on the cause of a failure or accident.
  5. Can you “calibrate” a forensic expert? Posted June 23, 2020. This is a good read, a bit of an eye opener as to what happens to an expert when s/he goes to a site and collects hard data. An expert does get “calibrated” to the scene of an failure or accident during a visual assessment. The process also happens to some extent during a virtual assessment.
  6. Counsel: Your case benefits when you visit the scene of a personal injury accident or engineering failure. Posted April 30, 2016 In a sense, this was a visual site assessment by counsel in a slip and fall case that paid dividends. He went to the accident site to watch me carry out skid resistance tests. Management later cancelled further expert work including submission of a report on the skid testing because the firm underestimated the cost of expert services. All that my client had to argue his case was his viewing of the field testing, photographs he had taken and my verbal comments on the results as we drove back to the city.
  7. “Technical” visual site assessments: Valuable, low cost, forensic engineering method. Posted September 4, 2012 The blog explains that the visual site assessment is a basic initial task in a forensic investigation. Sometimes it’s all that is necessary in the gathering and analyzing of data on the cause of an accident or failure.

Examples of Real and Virtual Visual Site Assessments

  1. My personal slip, trip and fall accident. Posted September 2, 2021
  2. Why did the four story building collapse during construction in London, Ontario? Posted December 31, 2020
  3. What can you get from a virtual site assessment about the cause of a leaning retaining wall? Posted November 13, 2020
  4. What can you get from a virtual visual examination of an accident scene. Posted August 28, 2020
  5. Wind, construction crane and inadequate cross-bracing caused Edmonton bridge failure: An initial hypothesis. Posted March 27, 2015
  6. Falling roof ice injures man. Posted January 18, 2013
  7. Gabion retaining wall collapse results in litigation. Posted February 9, 2013

Related to the blogs in the Bundles above

  1. The reliability of an educated guess on the cause of a failure or accident. Posted October 22, 2020.
  2. Where does an expert’s initial hypothesis come from? Posted February 25, 2019. Updated March 18, 2019

References

  1. Can you “calibrate” a forensic expert? Posted June 23, 2020
  2. Using SOAP notes in forensic engineering investigation. Posted February 6, 2014
  3. Differential diagnosis in medicine and forensic investigation, and soft, initial thoughts on cause. Posted December 20, 2019
  4. An expert’s “dirty hands and muddy boots”. Posted December 20, 2013

(Posted by Eric E. Jorden, M.Sc., P.Eng. Consulting Professional Engineer, Forensic Engineer, Geotechnology Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada September 14, 2021 ejorden@eastlink.ca)   

My personal slip, trip and fall accident

I don’t recommend it but the trip and fall accident I had recently has certainly opened my eyes and added to my experience investigating the cause of these types of accidents.

I got insight in a hurry on how easily it can happen and how the tiniest feature at a slip, trip and fall site needs to be investigated. You can’t beat personal experience, but if I had a choice I would have passed it up in a heart beat.

I tripped on the curb in a parking lot and fell hard – face down – on a concrete sidewalk. I had just got out of my car at a building where I was picking up some safety equipment. The building had a closed Covid-19-look and I was looking up – while walking forward – for a sign on how to alert people that I was there. When down I went after tripping on a simple curb – or so it seemed simple.

Curbs are everywhere and we walk across them all the time so what happened this time?

I visually examined the site a couple of days later when I had recovered a little. The curb in the parking lot looked well built. But I also got the impression it was a little higher than curbs in general.

I looked more closely where I had tripped and there was no question the curb was higher there. It gradually got higher from the parking lot in general to the place where I fell. A rough measure indicated 7.9 inches compared to 6.7 inches in the parking lot.

I went back later and measured the height of the curb where I fell and compared this to measurements of the curb farther along. I also compared the height to the curb on the other side of the 40 foot wide parking lot.

I then compared the height of the curb in the parking to that in the parking lot of an apartment building and also to the curb on the residential street where I live.

This is what I found:

  1. Height of curb where I fell … 7.9 inches
  2. Height of curb farther along … 6.6 inches (1.3 inches lower)
  3. Height 40 feet across the parking lot … 5.7 inches (2.2 inches lower)
  4. Height of curb in an apartment building parking lot … 5.6 inches (2.3 inches lower)
  5. Height of curb on my residential street … 5.1 (2.8 inches lower)

Note the differences from where I fell compared to where people might be expected to step up and over the curb after getting out of their car: 1.3″, 2.3″ and 2.8″ lower.

I concluded that expectation‘ played a part in my fall. Like all of us, I walk over curbs all the time without looking down, expecting them to be a typical and uniform height. I certainly don’t expect the height of a curb to change within a few feet.

And, as turned out at the site, the curb wasn’t built higher, there was a depression in the parking lot surface exposing more of the curb.

It was easy to see this by getting down on your hands and knees and looking along the top of the curb and seeing that it was uniformly graded. It was also easy to see that the parking lot was not uniformly graded at my accident site.

It was either built this way or subsided on a compressible sub-grade – the foundation soils beneath the pavement were compressible.

Why didn’t I see the subsidence in the pavement? Well, it’s not something you expect to see in a parking lot surface. The accident site is in an area of town that is relatively new with a well designed and constructed look.

The personal experience take-away from this?: Respect for how a simple one or two inch (1″ or 2″) change in level at a site can can cause a serious trip and fall accident. The cause of the tiniest, irregular feature at a site must be investigated – why the subsidence in the pavement at this site? Luckily I got out of this with my head intact – no concussion – but it could have been worst.

***

The height of the curb was quite a revelation but so too was the attention I got after I fell. I remember lying there on the concrete sidewalk with head and shoulders on the lawn by the sidewalk. Stunned for a few moments then trying to get up to lie against the post marking the location of the disabled parking lot.

More moments passed and I was conscious of a pickup truck stopping and the driver jumping out and running towards me calling out to his assistant to bring the first aid kit. Then conscious of a woman and a guy coming out of the building. And another woman with an oatcake. All asking if I was okay; the truck driver getting down to help me up against the disabled post. I learned later that my face was a bloody mess to look at by all those on the sidewalk with me.

I heard a first-responder’s siren off in the distance and wondered where they were going in a hurry. I quickly learned to me, brief minutes after I had fallen. Impressive. For sure my face prompted someone to call 911.

Lots of questioning and testing of my vitals followed. Through it all I explained why I was there and produced a form for the safety equipment – I was determined to follow through on why I was there. I also imagine I was being engaged in conversation as part of the assessment.

More minutes passed, a chair was brought out and I managed to get on it. The vitals were all pretty good, not perfect considering the whack I got but okay. Then suggestions from all around to go to Emerg. No way I was going there considering the wait-time reputation these places have and signed off to that effect with the first responders.

More time passed and I managed to walk into the office building and sit down in a recreation area. As determined as I was to push back against this broadside I realized I shouldn’t drive in rush hour traffic and called neighbours who came and got me. While waiting I got up and walked around the recreation room several times, taking back my life.

My resolve was challenged again in the evening when two of my daughters called on FaceTime on a family matter – surprised, to say the least, to see the messy face and hear the trip and fall report.

Considering that both are in medical fields I got more questions about going to Emerg and comments from them on brain bleeding, concussion and not waking up in the morning. I just couldn’t go there and those moments passed. I was beginning to feel quite okay then but I did agree not to drive the next day.

I learned a few hours later from a medical doc friend that brain injury would have presented within short hours of my fall. I was sorry to be awkward about going to Emerg with the women and man who were quick to act, the first responders who were good, and my daughters who were concerned – I just had to push back.

***

(Posted by Eric E. Jorden, M.Sc., P.Eng. Consulting Professional Engineer, Forensic Engineer, Geotechnology Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada September 2, 2021 ejorden@eastlink.ca)   

(Note: The foregoing is not a report on a forensic engineering investigation)