Monday, April 27, 2009

Poles Vault to Headlines: The Defective Light Pole Problem

Ordinarily, when I select an item for discussion in this blog, I try to choose one that has relevance beyond my local area. After all, I'm writing partly for readers around the world who follow this blog (both of them). So last month, when an athletic-field light pole toppled over at a high school in Hays County where I live, I thought it was odd, but not of sufficiently general interest to write about here. Now I've changed my mind.

As Eric Dexheimer of the Austin American-Statesman described in a front-page story on Sunday Apr. 26, at least eight light poles across the U. S. have collapsed in the last three years. All of these poles were designed by Whitco, a firm in Fort Worth, Texas which is now bankrupt. Fortunately, no one has been killed or injured in these pole failures, but a lot of school districts and towns are out a lot of money for smashed lighting fixtures, damaged gyms, and whatnot, and everyone who ever bought Whitco poles is now anxiously examining them. In many cases they're finding cracks and replacing them before anything worse happens. On Apr. 23, the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced it would investigate the pole failures, and has power to issue a safety recall if one is warranted. Dexheimer's own investigation revealed that the design of the poles was marginal in the extreme, and probably reduced the ability of the poles to withstand high winds. The thickness of metal at the base wasn't sufficient to take the huge stresses that result when wind blows against the large area of lighting fixtures at the top of the pole, and the poles developed cracks. The official investigation will probably confirm these findings.

What implications for engineering ethics does this story have? The parties involved are the engineers who designed the poles, the firm (Whitco) that employed the engineers, the organizations that supplied the materials (a Mexican steel mill) and fabricated the poles to Whitco specifications (another Fort Worth company still in business), the agencies that bought the poles (mostly school districts), and at least that portion of the general public which was within falling radius of the poles when they fell. Clearly, if the engineers knowingly chiseled on the pole specifications to save money, the fault lies with them. The American Society of Civil Engineers has a Code of Ethics which states (Canon 1 (b)) that "Engineers shall approve or seal only those design documents, reviewed or prepared by them, which are determined to be safe for public health and welfare in conformity with accepted engineering standards." The Code has no legal standing, but if the engineers who did the work were required to be licensed professional engineers, they could lose their licenses. However, since they worked for a private firm and not directly for a public agency, it's likely that no such requirement applies.

An added complication to the situation is that the firm selling the poles has gone bankrupt (although the name Whitco was bought by a separate company afterwards). Bankruptcy in the corporate world can be like death in the human world—it can remove the entity concerned from all worldly obligations. Of course, a good enough civil lawyer can find a way to extract blood from a turnip, or at least the turnip's heirs and assigns, but bankruptcy makes things even harder. After all the legal dust settles, it may turn out that the school districts and their insurance companies are without recourse, and have to swallow the expense of new poles on their own.

It remains to be seen what the Consumer Product Safety Commission will do. Their bread-and-butter issues usually run to things like toys with lead paint, not eighty-foot light poles sold to school districts. But the current administration is taking an expansive view of governmental authority, so it's not surprising that light poles will fall (so to speak) under the purview of the Commission from now on.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Somebody has to mind the henhouse, and foxes (that is, private companies) aren't too qualified. In some countries, anyone who calls himself or herself an engineer must have a governmentally-sanctioned professional license. But in the U. S., back when a movement toward licensing was gaining steam in the 1930s, private firms, worried about the chance that licensing would drive up the cost of engineering services, rushed to pliable state legislatures (is there any other kind?) and convinced them to write in "industrial exemptions," meaning that if you worked for a private firm as opposed to the government, you didn't have to have a professional engineer's license. And so the matter stands today.

It seems to work all right most of the time, except when it doesn't. And when a clear case of engineering incompetence shows up, as it appears to have done on playing fields all over the U. S., the only recourses are financial. If the engineers responsible are ever identified, and they hold P. E. licenses, they could lose them. But that wouldn't stop them from working as engineers, at least not in the U. S. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, I will leave to you to decide.

Sources: The online version of the Austin American-Statesman article can be found at

1 comment:

  1. Scott Thourson1:46 PM, May 03, 2009

    The goal of an engineer should be to serve the public in a safe manor. Everyone has trust in engineers to do this. We all go to the 40th floor of a building without fear because we know it would be impossible for such a thing to be constructed without having our safety be a primary goal. This is a sticky situation because this is no 40 floor building. In my opinion, if an engineer has alternative goals or sacrifices safety for any reason, then they should not be allowed to be engineers. What is the point?