Subject: It's What You Don't Know That Hurts You...
From: Bill Polhemus <bpolhem(--nospam--at)swbell.net>
Date: Tue, 19 Sep 2000 08:30:06 -0500
I'm just have to gripe a little bit here.
I was informed by a colleague familiar with the situation that a bridge that had
been designed under my supervision a few years back, which is being constructed
now, has had some problems in construction.
At the time of its design, I had a group of ten engineers working under my
supervision at a consulting firm. Two of the "engineers" were recent graduates,
but the rest either had or would soon have their P.E. licenses. We had this
bridge project, which consisted of six bridges of various types, spans and
configurations, part of a freeway expansion project. I divided my group into
task forces with a P.E. as "project engineer" over each, and a senior P.E. as
"quality assurance" (i.e. he was to check all design calculations).
As it turns out, one of the bridges under a particular "project engineer" has
had problems almost from the start, but the problems were rather minor in scope.
However, this time, the problem is great.
It seems that in designing the bridge to use prestressed concrete "U-Beams"
(that is, they are a "U" shaped section), the design team had dithered about how
many beams to use in each two lane span. They apparently settled on three beams
per span. But unfortunately, somehow they had placed on the drawings, the
prestressing information that was adequate if they had used FOUR beams. In other
words, the prestressed concrete beams were underreinforced for the loading!
Somehow, this got through not ONLY the design, but even the checking phase. The
calculations exist that show the original project engineer's and the checker's
initials. And of course, in the end I sealed the drawings.
Now, it looks like the contractor is going to backcharge the client about $4
million for the prestressed beams that are now, in a word, useless. They are in
addition going to have to delay the project because they will have to have new
I have not been contacted officially on this, and don't know that I will, but I
am sure that this will be remembered by many in our area should the time come
that I am in the running to get some of this kind of design work.
It is frustrating to me because of the way that work is done in consulting firms
like this, where you are SUPERVISING people who are doing the work, but the
scope of the projects makes it difficult to be involved in every aspect of the
design. I have found from time to time, in fact most recently just a few months
ago, that if I DO get involved in detailed checking of others' work that is
being done under my seal, I am very often disappointed.
This, however, is the first time that a catastrophe of this magnitude has
occurred, and I am sick about it! I pride myself on my diligence. We are all
human, and prone to make mistakes, but the nature of the negligence on this
project astounds me! I don't understand why others don't worry as I do about
I am now in private practice, and thankful that from this time forth nothing is
going out under my name that I have not PERSONALLY been responsible for doing. I
will never again trust the "QA" portion of the work to anyone else when
something is being done under my supervision. I only hope that this particular
chicken doesn't come home to roost directly over my head, but if it does I am
resigned to take responsibility for it. H*ll, I guess I could lose my license
over something like this. Not a good thing.
Just a cautionary note to you all. Please be careful what is being done under
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