By Tara Hoke
A federal agency hires a contractor to install a standby generator system at its facility in a large coastal city, aiming to ensure that the facility will remain fully operational in the event of a power loss from a natural disaster or other cause. Unfortunately, less than six months into the project, fractures begin to appear on the far side of the facility’s parking lot. This portion of the parking lot lays atop a hillside that was being used as the dumping site for excavated soil from the project. Nearly a million pounds of soil had been dumped over the hillside during a two-week period.
While use of the area immediately ceases, the deterioration continues and ultimately the hillside collapses. The cost to restore it and repair the parking lot results in project expenditures of nearly $15 million over the original estimated cost.
The agency conducts an internal review of the incident, and the resulting report offers a sharp critique of the public employees involved in overseeing the excavation. The report notes that the agency’s chief of engineering had assigned the role of project representative to an employee who had no engineering background nor any previous experience in excavation work, and it characterizes some of the representative’s decisions as reflecting his overall lack of fitness for the assignment.
First, the representative allowed the contractor to begin excavation without an approved excavation and shoring design plan, which is in violation of contract requirements and against safety recommendations published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. While a plan was hastily submitted by the contractor a month later — at the insistence of the agency’s construction safety officer — it was riddled with errors. It would take several more drafts and an additional review by a third-party engineer before a satisfactory design plan was approved.
Second, the contract authorized disposal of the excavation soil elsewhere on the facility grounds, but the specific choice of location was made by the representative, and the report faults the project representative for failing to secure a geotechnical assessment of the proposed dumping location. While nothing in the agency’s contract or protocols expressly required such an assessment, the report notes that the representative had selected the hillside because the same area had been used to dump soil and construction debris on a similar project years earlier.
The report opined that the representative’s knowledge of this past dumping of large concrete pieces, pipes, and other rubble on the hillside “was an obvious clue that an additional assessment should have been conducted” of its stability.
The report also identified other instances of failed oversight that were unrelated to the hillside collapse. Under agency policy, a construction safety officer was required to conduct weekly inspections at the work site and to report safety violations to the agency’s contracting officer, who had authority to stop work or take other actions to maintain a safe environment.
Instead, the report noted that the safety officer failed to perform as many as half the required inspections of the site and that his practice was to visit on the same day each week, a routine the report states allowed the contractor to relax safety standards on days when the safety officer was not expected to visit.
Further, even safety issues that were observed by the safety officer were not reported through the proper channels at the agency. Inspection reports were shared with the agency’s project representative that detailed OSHA violations such as insufficient shoring walls to protect workers from cave-ins, lack of personal protective equipment, and failure to secure loose materials in windy conditions. Due to apparent confusion over reporting responsibilities, this information was not conveyed to the contracting officer.
Ultimately, the report concludes that poor planning and oversight by the agency allowed for hazardous construction conditions to occur at the excavation site and contributed to the collapse of the hillside and parking lot. It concludes with a number of procedural recommendations intended to reduce the potential for similar failures in the future.
If the individuals named in this report were ASCE members, how would their conduct be measured under the ASCE Code of Ethics?
For nearly 50 years, the code has made a clear statement about the prominence of safety as an ethical obligation. This guidance was previously expressed in Canon 1’s directive to “hold paramount” the public health, safety, and welfare, and it resides today in Section Ia’s instruction to “first and foremost, protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public.”
As this language may raise some ambiguity about whether workers on job sites or other engineering workspaces are encompassed in the obligation to protect public safety, the new code offers additional guidance in the Peers section: Section Vc requires members to “foster health and safety in the workplace.”
In addition to those direct references, it could also be argued that safety is an underlying rationale for many of the code’s other ethical principles. Engineers perform work “only in areas of their competence” and seal work performed “under their responsible charge” to ensure that the safety of the work has been assessed by someone with adequate education and expertise. Likewise, engineers “present clearly and promptly the consequences” and “report misconduct” when decisions by other people threaten to compromise engineers’ commitments to safety.
Even Section IVa’s charge for engineers to “act as faithful agents of their clients and employers with integrity and professionalism” bears a connection to safety, as it suggests a need to balance faithfulness against the higher dictates of professionalism.
If this case had involved ASCE members, it is likely that ASCE’s Committee on Professional Conduct would have found that each of the public agency employees fell short in their foremost obligation to safety. Given the project representative’s critical role in assessing the safe planning and execution of the contractor’s excavation work, the chief of engineering should have ensured this role was assigned to someone with the knowledge and skill to perform the work properly.
The representative, in turn, when making decisions about the safe removal and relocation of excavated materials, should have had the wisdom to recognize his own lack of expertise and sought advice from others.
The construction safety officer failed to perform his assigned duties with the required level of diligence, undermining his employer’s objectives in monitoring the safety of the project site. The safety officer and the project representative made unspoken assumptions about who was supposed to communicate issues up the chain, creating an environment in which crucial information about unsafe conditions failed to reach the person who was best equipped to act upon it.
Conversely, this breakdown in reporting could have been avoided at the outset if the contracting officer or others in leadership had clearly communicated each person’s roles and responsibilities with respect to safety issues.
That said, rather than focusing on any one individual’s ethical missteps, this case serves best as a demonstration of the importance of establishing a safety culture in any organization. As is often said, the tone of an organization is set at the top, and if the message conveyed by leadership is one that prioritizes costs or other considerations while remaining silent on ethical values, then this message is likely to constrain ethical decision-making at all levels of the organization.
To avoid circumstances like this case, in which a collective inattentiveness to safety causes costly and even dangerous conditions to arise, it is vital for the organization to communicate its values, educate its workforce, and hold everyone accountable for their part in keeping safety and ethics at the forefront.
Tara Hoke is ASCE’s general counsel and a contributing editor to Civil Engineering.
This article first appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Civil Engineering as “Lack of Experience and a Lax Attitude Cause Failure.”