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Failures in the field of engineering are a common occurrence. From the Johnstown Flood that occurred in 1889 to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, engineering disasters have always originated from the contravention of engineering ethics. Common causes include poor designs, neglect of safety protocols, unethical cost-cutting measures, and poor construction procedures. In many cases, miscommunication, ignorance, and negligence are often cited as the causes of disasters. Ethics in engineering can be divided into two groups: micro and macro ethics. Micro ethics encompass all personal decisions that are connected to careers and lives. These include values such as honesty, integrity, fairness, adherence to safety, competence, and ensuring quality. Macro ethics in corporate decisions are connected to the social responsibility of the engineering profession. Examples include product liability, public welfare, environmental protection, sustainable development, and bioethics. The Bhopal disaster and the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure are two of the most devastating disasters that occurred due to gross violation of engineering ethics.
The Bhopal Disaster
The Bhopal Disaster is cited as one of the most devastating industrial disasters that have ever occurred in the field of chemical engineering, it took place in the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh state in India in the year 1984. On December 3, approximately 45 tons of methyl isocyanate gas leaked from an insecticide plant and spread over the densely populated neighborhoods in the surrounding areas (Rajkumar, 2017). As a result, more than 600,000 were exposed to the highly toxic gas. Several estimates of the casualties have been released since the incident. For instance, immediately after the catastrophe occurred, 2,259 people died (Pitta, 2015). In 2008, the families of 3,787 people who lost their lives due to the incident were compensated by the Government of Madhya Pradesh. A 2006 record released by the government revealed that 558, 125 people suffered injuries, both minor ad serious. (Rajkumar, 2017) Victims of the leak reported burns in the eyes and throats and nausea. Statistics estimate the death toll to be between 15,000 and 20,000 (Taylor, 2014). Survivors of the incident have reported several side effects, including blindness and respiratory complications.
The disaster was caused by the poor quality of the facility, and the unavailability of key instruments. Safety equipment and procedures were of low quality and the government failed to implement safety measures because the industry was struggling (Taylor, 2014). Two safety systems were faulty; the flare tower and water sprays were functioning poorly and the refrigeration unit for the safe storage of the methyl isocyanate was nonfunctional (Taylor, 2014). The vent scrubber had been out of operation for three weeks and a faulty valve allowed water to mix with MIC gas. The pressure of the mixture increased inside the storage tank and a safety valve failed, thus releasing the gas. An important ethical code requires all professionals to hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public (Johnson, 2020). In the case of the Bhopal disaster, these factors were neglected. The plant was built in an area that was allocated for light industrial and commercial use. However, pressures from stiff competition led to the development of hazardous industries in the area. Another ethical code that was broken is the requirement to strive to serve the public interest (Johnson, 2020). Even though they knew the plant’s safety systems were in poor condition, they continued to produce pesticides, oblivious of the dangers to the public. Engineers’ code of ethics requires all professionals to avoid deceptive acts (Johnson, 2020). Certifying the plant for operation, filing false improvement and maintenance reports, and denying responsibility for the disaster were deceptive acts.
Several courses of action could be taken in order to prevent similar occurrences in the future, save lives, and protect the environment from degradation. These include the conduction of safety and risk analysis, verification of company health and safety reports, stringent implementation of code of ethics, heavy fines for violation of protocols, closer monitoring of plant activities, and the passage of stringent laws to punish liable individuals and companies. Risk analysis is important because it reveals the inherent weaknesses in projects that pose risks to public health and safety. Government authorities should be stricter in the enforcement of laws and policies that govern project management (Taylor, 2014). They should impose heavy fines to people who violate them, and this would serve as a key deterrent measure. Governments should also form special task forces to verify the validity of health and safety records presented by project managers. The majority of them falsify the documents in order to get approval from authorities to proceed with their projects.
Banqiao Dam Failure
The Banqiao Dam failure has been cited as the deadliest structural failure that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. On August 5, 1975, typhoon Nina was approaching the Henan province in eastern China as heavy rains poured. For the next several days, it rained heavily, exceeding the yearly average on the first day. The Banqiao Dam had been constructed to handle a half meter of rainfall experienced over a period of three days, but the downpour exceeded the projected volume (Smith, 2017). The area had experienced six times the expected amount. Workers had been ordered to release small amounts of water from the dam because of the flooding experienced down the valley. The breakdown of communication lines forced the workers to make a decision with regard to opening the dam to release water, as the levels were rising rapidly. The water levels rose above the protection wall and the dam failed to handle the large volume, causing a huge wave that flowed downstream. It was 7 miles wide, about 20 feet high, and moved at a speed of 50 kilometers per hour (Smith, 2017). That night, 26,000 people died due to drowning and 62 dams failed from the floods. The ensuing famine and drought led to 145,000 more deaths.
According to engineering ethics, safety, health, and the welfare of the public are paramount. These were ignored in the building of the dam because cracks appeared after its completion due to engineering and construction errors. As a result, Chen Xing, a professional involved in constructing the dam, warned that it was unsafe (Smith, 2017). He criticized its final construction and government policy for ignoring the warning and commissioning its use. According to the code of ethics, engineers are required to avoid deceptive acts and conduct themselves ethically, honorably, and responsibly (Johnson, 2020). These codes were broken because of putting cost-cutting measures above public safety. Instead of installing twelve sluice gates, they fitted only five (Pitta, 2015). Dishonorable, unethical, and irresponsible behavior was evident from the dismissal of Xing for raising concerns regarding the dam’s safety (Smith, 2017). Instead of listening to professional advice, they chose to hire Soviet engineers to do repairs on the dam. As a result, it was nicknamed “the iron dam.”
The above-mentioned disaster has been labeled a man-made disaster because of the oversight regarding construction errors and the lack of transparency during construction. In that regard, several measures can be taken in order to prevent similar incidences in the future. This would be important as dam construction has become widespread across the world. These include focused surveillance, the consolidation of reservoir dams, the implementation of stringent protocols to guide construction and increased monitoring with regard to the verification of construction designs. In addition, governments should construct dams in areas that are not habited by human beings, the formation of more effective disaster management agencies, and possible compensation for the affected people (Smith, 2017). Engineering disasters affect thousands of people, either through displacement or death. It is important for governments and liable companies to compensate the affected people in order to facilitate their relocation to safer locations.
The largest percentage of industrial disasters occurred because engineers contravened the code of ethics that governs their profession. Unethical decision-making, negligence, ignorance of safety policies and laws, and deceptive actions are common causes of catastrophes that have been reported in various fields of engineering. Examples of such disasters are the Bhopal disaster of 1984 and the Banqiao Dam failure of 1975. These incidences led to massive loss of lives, infrastructure, environmental degradation, and severe legal consequences. They could have been avoided had the engineers and other professionals involved acted ethically and set human health and safety as key priorities. Governments should enact stricter project management laws, fine violators of policies heavily, and encourage engineering bodies to retrain all professionals on the importance of ethics.
Johnson, D. G. (2020). Engineering ethics: Contemporary & enduring debates. Yale University Press.
Pitta, T. (2015). Catastrophe: A guide to world’s worst industrial disasters. Vij Books India Pvt Ltd.
Rajkumar, S. (2017). Safety security and risk management: Aftermath Bhopal disaster. International Journal of Biosensors & Bioelectronics 2(6), 180-183.
Smith, L. (2017). The deadliest structural failure in history killed 170,000 and China tried to cover it up. Timeline. Web.
Taylor, A. (2014). Bhopal: The world’s worst industrial disaster, 30 years later. The Atlantic. Web.