Machine Design began publishing in September of 1929. So perhaps it is due to some kind of cosmic cycle that the magazine’s 80th anniversary falls in a year pundits increasingly compare to those of the Great Depression.

No doubt people stumbled around after the stock market crash of 1929 asking how such a disaster could happen. In the intervening years we’ve come to know a lot more about avoiding some kinds of disasters, though perhaps not the financial variety.

Arguably our track record for dodging engineering calamities is better. Wisdom on the subject comes from Mark D. Abkowitz, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University. Abkowitz has analyzed disasters that include the collapse of the walkway in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency, the loss of the Challenger and Columbia Space shuttles, and the meltdown at the Chernobyl reactor. Out of this work came both a book called Operational Risk Management, and a course designed to raise the awareness of risk in engineering undergraduates.

After analyzing the roots of numerous man-made catastrophes, Abkowitz noticed basic risk factors that engineers need to be aware of in any undertaking. Construction flaws are among the most obvious.

“In the Hyatt Regency disaster, construction flaws should have been identified by city officials; (enforcement activities) just got lip service. But the rubber stamping of numerous design specs didn’t help matters,” he says.

It probably comes as no surprise that communication difficulties show up as factors in many disasters. But they are made worse when the organization itself arrogantly thinks it is immune to tragedy, something that crops up surprisingly often. “In some respects there is a limit to what engineers can do to combat this attitude. If you believe there is a problem and have made management aware of it, I’m not sure you have much control of the information as it percolates through the organization,” Abkowitz says.

In the same vein, political agendas and economic pressures frequently contribute to calamities. This is all the more reason engineers should “design for scenarios where things are not going to go their way. That at least puts them in a position to persevere. There is an expression that you make your own luck, and in some respects I agree with that,” he says.

Nevertheless, engineers can’t completely avoid risk, no matter how comprehensive the advance planning. “You’ll never have enough resources to manage all the risks in your organization. So you have to come up with a structured way of making sure you are getting the highest return on your mitigation strategies,” Abkowitz says. Finally, Abkowitz has a message bound to be unpopular among those pushing for Nanny State protection against every conceivable misfortune: Risk is a fact of life.

“We’ve gotten to the point where perceived risks are distorted from reality, but they drive the political and resource allocation process,” he says. “People must accept the fact that sometimes bad things are going to happen even if you are doing things as responsibly as you can.”

— Leland Teschler, Editor