TV Antenna Collapse
Staff posted on October 24, 2006 |
TV Antenna Collapse

Ethical Issues of the Case: Points for Discussion

How do the ethical obligations between engineering professionals and the public apply in the TV Antenna Tower Collapse case?

At first glance it appears that Riggers was responsible for devising lifting scheme that was technically flawed, and then implementing that scheme at the cost of seven lives. Yet, as engineers test designs for ever-increasing speeds, loads, capacities and the like, they must remember their social obligations to protect the public welfare. After all, the public has provided engineers, through the tax base, with the means for obtaining education, and through legislation, with the means for licensing and regulating themselves. In return, engineers have a responsibility for protecting the safety and well-being of the public in all of their design efforts. This is part of an implicit social contract that all engineers agree to when they accept admission to an engineering college.

The design company engineers knew that they had to provide an adequately designed hoisting lug on the final antenna section, and they did; however, the lug was sufficient only for lifting the antenna section off the delivery truck and placing it on the ground. Due to the placement of the lugs in relation to the microwave baskets, the hoisting lugs were useless for lifting the section 1,000 feet to the top of the tower. One might argue that the hoisting lug design was, in truth, inadequate. On the other hand, Antenna Engineering showed the antenna plans to Riggers, Inc., before the antenna was built. When Riggers looked at the plans they should have realized that the placement of the hoisting lugs was poor. But employees of Riggers, Inc. did not have the same technical expertise as those at Antenna Engineering. They were skilled tradespeople, not professional engineers. They had raised 30 other towers in like manner prior to the Missouri City catastrophe.

After the antenna was delivered to the construction site, Riggers went to Antenna Engineering and asked their permission to remove the microwave baskets from the antenna section to permit hoisting of the section using the lifting lugs provided. Riggers promised to remount the baskets once the section was in place at the top of the tower. Antenna Engineering flatly refused permission for this proposal. They cited previous examples of other rigging companies damaging their antenna baskets during hoisting and having to fix the baskets themselves, at their expense. They stated that their warranty for the antenna would be voided if the baskets were removed. The antenna section had to be lifted into position with the baskets intact. Antenna Engineering further said that the problem of proper hoisting lugs and lifting the antenna section was the responsibility of Riggers. The assignment of responsibilities in this regard are, of course, a matter of contractual commitments. To determine "legal" responsibility, one would have to review the contracts with a magnifying glass.

The story, unfortunately, does not end here. Riggers was a small local company, and they did not have any engineers working for them. As has already been demonstrated, they came up with an inadequate design. To their credit, they did go back to the chief engineer at Antenna Engineering and asked his opinion of their revised lifting scheme. The engineer refused to approve, or even review, the design. After consultation with the chief executive officer of the firm, the engineer decided that, by saying anything to Riggers, the company would be assuming liability if anything went wrong. Accordingly, they remained mute and did not respond to the request for help from Riggers.

Thus, there is a moral issue involved in Antenna Engineering's decision to remain silent to avoid litigation. In "Professional Responsibility for Harmful Actions," Martin Curd and Larry May propose the following simplified account of professional responsibility embodying a rather crude model of negligence:

The Malpractice Model of Professional Responsibility: A professional, S, is negligent and hence responsible for the harm he or she causes, if his or her behavior fits the following pattern:

  1. As a member of his or her profession, S has a duty to conform to the standard operating procedures of his or her profession.
  2. At time t, action X conforms to the standard operating procedures of S's profession.
  3. S omits to perform X at time t.
  4. Harm is caused to some person, P, as a result of S's failure to do X; that is, if S had done X, then the harm to P would not have occurred.

Was there a violation of this model in this case? If not, does this mean the model is inadequate?

Assume that a patient in a local hospital with a serious malady has a doctor who believes he is not knowledgeable enough about that malady. He goes to his medical colleagues on the hospital staff and asks their advice. They all refuse to talk to him, citing possible malpractice liability insurance problems, since the patient is not theirs. They do not believe state "good-Samaritan" laws will protect them in these circumstances. Does this mean the patient has to hire the other expert doctors to protect himself? What if the patient is not even aware of the refusal to cooperate and is never told about it? Certainly, the seven riggers who perished in the disaster were never given the option of hiring a different expert engineer to check the rigging company's design.

Finally, if we assume that the chief engineer and the president of Antenna Engineering did indeed recognize the potential catastrophe, and would have liked to prevent it (more likely they just hoped for the best and expected that everything would turn out OK), what, if anything, could they have done about the situation without subjecting their company to liability? For one thing, they could have called the head of Riggers and urged him to hire a consulting engineer to check Riggers' hoisting lug design. Another possibility is that Antenna Engineering could have themselves hired a third-party engineering firm to analyze the hoisting lug design and report directly to Riggers. The liability issues may have been murky in either of these scenarios, but at least seven riggers would still be alive today. Thus, what was the responsibility of Antenna Engineering? What else might they have done to assist Riggers, Inc., even if the issue of legal liability persisted?

Consider the following questions:

  1. Where does the responsibility of Antenna Engineering end and Riggers begin? Should Antenna Engineering have provided adequate hoisting lugs in their original design?
  2. Should Riggers have looked at the original design more carefully?
  3. Should Antenna Engineering Have Allowed Riggers To Remove The Microwave Baskets?
  4. Should Riggers have devised their own hoisting solution without consulting another engineer? What is their responsibility for contracting a consulting engineer?
  5. Should Antenna Engineering have recommended another consulting engineer to assist Riggers? Should they have notified their professional society? Was it ethical for the engineers at Antenna to wash their hands of the project without attempting to find a resolution for Riggers? What other measures could they have taken to assist Riggers without becoming legally entangled?
  6. Should Antenna Engineering have refused to review the new hoisting design?

If social responsibility comes before legal liability, surely there were other things Antenna Engineering could have done. What would you do in a similar situation? We must remember that the implementation of the design was done by people without professional education. They were skilled workers whose expertise was experiential in nature. As one might imagine, they did not look for optimal solutions, and they did not know enough to know what they did not know. But the engineers knew that Riggers employees did not have the requisite technical knowledge. So why did Antenna Engineering not help?

The moral and professional positions of Antenna Engineering are at best on very shaky ground. Riggers' position appears to be somewhat questionable as well, in that they engaged in activity that they were not qualified to perform. In the end, Antenna Engineering ignored their social responsibility and got off the hook legally. But did they act ethically? That is the question that must be asked.

Still Photographs

Collapsed Tower Sections Lower Antenna Section Upper Antenna Section General View Wreckage Stacked To Roof of Transmission Building
Collapsed Tower Sections Lower Antenna Section Upper Antenna Section General View Wreckage Stacked To Roof of Transmission Building
General View 4" Diameter Support Cables Other Antennas In Background of Wreckage Failed Lifting Channel Failed Lifting Bolts
General View 4" Diameter Support Cables Other Antennas In Background of Wreckage Failed Lifting Channel Failed Lifting Bolts
Close-up of Failed U-bolts Climbing Tower Crane and Antenna Upper Antenna Section Upper Antenna Section Tower Legs Jammed into Ground
Close-up of Failed U-bolts Climbing Tower Crane and Antenna Upper Antenna Section Upper Antenna Section Tower Legs Jammed into Ground
Support Cables Sliced Several Feet Into Ground   One of several 8" diameter solid steel tower leg   Dropped Support Cables Back To Property Line
Support Cables Sliced Several Feet Into Ground One of several 8" diameter solid steel tower leg sticking out of the ground. The tower sections were so deeply embedded into the ground that they could not be dug out. They were merely cut off 2 feet below natural grade and left in the ground Dropped Support Cables Back To Property Line

MPEGs of Video Tapes
MPEG of Antenna on Truck MPEG - View of Tower During Construction MPEG - Going Up The Tower MPEG - Failure MPEG - Aftermath
MPEG of Antenna on Truck (651 K file) MPEG - View of Tower During Construction (331 K file) MPEG - Going Up The Tower (1690 K file) MPEG - Failure (561 K file) MPEG - Aftermath (1562 K file)
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