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July 2011

Ensuring the Safety, Health, and Welfare of the Public

Introduction

Thirty years ago this month, on July 17, 1981, a fourth-floor walkway in the Kansas City Hyatt Regency collapsed under the weight of spectators observing a dancing event in the atrium below. The walkway fell onto a second-floor walkway, which in turn collapsed under this weight, and both structures plunged into the crowded hotel atrium, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200 others. The cause of the collapse was ultimately traced to box beam–hanger rod connections, which even under the walkway’s dead load were near failure and thus could not adequately sustain the additional weight of the spectators.

After an investigation of the collapse, the Missouri Board for Architects, Professional Engineers, Professional Land Surveyors and Landscape Architects revoked the licenses of two professional engineers involved in the project for gross negligence and misconduct in the performance of their duties. One of these engineers was an ASCE member, and the subsequent investigation by ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct proved to be perhaps the first true test of the canon recently incorporated into ASCE’s Code of Ethics requiring engineers to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” (A description of this case may be found in the Question of Ethics column in the January 2007 issue of ASCE News, which appeared on page 8.) The purpose of this month’s column is to discuss one of the many lessons that can be learned from what has been described as the deadliest failure from a structural engineering mistake in U.S. history.

Discussion

The voluminous studies, court documents, and other material produced in the investigations of the walkway collapse describe a series of mistakes and omissions that allowed a critical connection to pass through the design and construction process without being subjected to the review necessary to ensure its safety. In statements to the Missouri board, the project engineer contended that it was standard practice for the design of connections to be handled by the fabricator. Accordingly, the engineer produced only a rough sketch of the walkway box beam–hanger rod connection, believing the fabricator would fill in the necessary details. This assumption was never communicated to the fabricator, who instead took the sketch as a completed design.

When the fabricator subsequently determined that the continuous rod design of the walkways was unworkable, he contacted the project engineer by telephone to request a change to an offset double-rod design. The project engineer performed a few calculations over the phone and indicated that the change was acceptable from a structural standpoint, but he asked that the fabricator submit the plan in writing for a formal approval of the design change. The new plan was never submitted in writing, and a change was made that had the effect of doubling the stress on the deficient connection.

These errors, together with numerous other mistakes uncovered in the collapse investigation, were the result of two fundamental failures in the walkway’s design and construction procedure: a lack of clarity as to which party bore the ultimate responsibility for the design of the connections and a failure to communicate vital information to the various parties involved in the project. In October 1985 ASCE’s Board of Direction adopted a policy statement entitled “Authority and Responsibility for Design of Steel Structures,” which assigned responsibility for the structural design of all steel structures, including connections, to the engineer of record. Drafted by the Task Committee on Responsibility for Design of Steel Structures, the policy statement noted that such failures as the Hyatt walkway collapse “resulted, in substantial part, because of loss of continuity and communication as a project moved through the phases of design, review of shop drawings, and construction,” and it stressed that “every effort must be made to avoid failures by careful definition of authority and responsibility by all of the parties involved in a project.”

The importance of communication, defined responsibilities, and other procedural checks in preventing engineering failures is echoed in several of ASCE’s current policy statements. For example, Policy 350 (“Construction Site Safety”) observes that “numerous accidents have been attributed to the lack of clear responsibilities” in the design and construction process, and it stresses that responsibility for approval of shop drawings and details should be clearly set forth in the contract documents. And Policy 351 (“Peer Review”) recommends independent peer reviews as a way of increasing quality assurance in constructed projects.

In 1984 ASCE held an invitational workshop to address the effect that the Hyatt walkway collapse had had on public confidence in the engineering profession, and the attendees quickly homed in on the procedural breakdowns evident in the project. A second workshop was then held at which representatives of project owners and government agencies, together with practicing engineers and architects, discussed plans for a written guide to quality assurance. A first draft of this guide was published in 1987, and both this version and a second “trial” edition received comments from more than 1,000 practicing professionals, legal experts, educators, and other interested parties.

In 1990 the guidelines were published as ASCE’s Manual 73 (Quality in the Constructed Project: A Guide for Owners, Designers, and Constructors), which expounds basic principles and recommendations for assigning responsibility to the appropriate parties, ensuring clear communication and compliance with contract documents and government regulations, and providing quality in every step of the process. The goal of the manual is to assist all parties in the design and construction process in determining the areas in which the level of service can be improved.

While the term “professional ethics” does not appear in the pages of Manual 73, the foreword to the 1990 edition notes the importance of “project team members working cooperatively in an atmosphere of mutual trust and understanding...[to] protect the public health, welfare, and safety.” These words—plus the tragic example presented by the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse—underscore the idea that consistent and effective procedures are not simply about legal liability, efficient use of resources, or creating a market advantage. They are also essential tools in enabling engineering professionals to uphold their ethical obligation to “hold paramount” the public welfare.

A second edition of Manual 73 was published in 2000, and a third is expected to be released later this year. In addition to the works cited in the January 2007 column, the following materials provide valuable insight on the Hyatt Regency collapse and its implications:

  • Elizabeth A. Banset, “Communications Failure in Hyatt Regency Disaster,” Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering 115, number 3 (1989): 273–88.
  • Norbert J. Delatte, Beyond Failure: Forensic Case Studies for Civil Engineers (Reston, Virginia: ASCE Press, 2009), 8–25.

Special thanks are in order to Paul Munger, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, for his thoughtful explanations and contributions on this subject. —Tara Hoke

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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