5 Small Mistakes with Not So Small Consequences
June 20, 2019
A lot happens during a construction project. Chances are, you’ve had your fair share of mistakes, slip-ups, and questionable ideas, and someone else managed to catch them before it was too late. It happens, we’re human, and we QA/QC for a reason. But… what happens when we don’t?
- In 2014, French train operator SNCF had just received the first trains of their brand new fleet. They rolled up to the station to welcome passengers—and stopped. The 2,000 trains they had ordered, costing $20 billion in total, were just a hair too wide to get into the station. As it turns out, these plump little engines were based on the track width of train platforms that had been built in the last 30 years, and the 1,000 or so other stations built 50 years ago had track access that was 20cm narrower.
- The French aren’t alone in measurement blunders, though this particular mistake is uniquely American. In the late 1990s, NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter had made it all the way to the Martian atmosphere, when suddenly the ground team lost all contact. Several attempts to re-establish the connection were made, but the mission was declared a wash. Following the mysterious and disappointing disappearance, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab established a peer review panel to determine what went wrong. In September of ‘99, they reached a conclusion: of the two teams collaborating on plotting the spacecraft’s orbit around Mars, one was using feet and inches, and the other was using centimeters and meters. This led to the orbit being at too low of an altitude, and the poor little satellite belly-flopped its way to an early, Martian grave.
- Movement in general has proven to be a tricky thing to calculate. In the early 2000s, London had built a foot-bridge spanning the river Thames to commemorate the new millennium. The “Millenium Bridge” as it was christened by Queen Elizabeth II in May of 2000, opened on June 10th of that same year. Then it was closed on June 13th. The reason? Evidently, architects forgot to factor in the “foot” part of “foot bridge,” meaning that when crowds of busy Londoners walked across it, the whole contraption swayed like a flag in the breeze. Of the over 160,000 people who crossed it during those three days, many described it as “nauseating,” “sea-sickening,” and “a little unsettling.” The £18.2 million ($23.1 million) bridge was closed, repaired, and reopened two years later to the tune of an additional £5 million ($6.3 million).
- While a good number of mistakes are made during the design phase, a vast number are also made during build. A crane truck operator in Wilmington, NC, was a little too rushed the morning of June 29th, 2018, and hadn’t made sure that everything was stowed and tucked away safely—such as the boom. As the truck approached a four-way intersection, video shows it passed under electrical lines, the boom get caught on these lines, and tear through them. The truck, unaware of the power-outage it had just caused (and of the live electrical wire still coiled around the end of the boom), kept turning through the intersection. The truck passed under a stoplight, smacked the boom into the mast arm, and scraped off two signs, a sensor, and three of the four lights before ripping the mast arm from the pole, where it smacked to the ground behind the truck.
- However, some careless mistakes can carry a heavier price tag, and not just financially. Just ask the Indian Navy, whose very first, brand new, $3 billion nuclear submarine was knocked out-of-commission within minutes of launching. There are no shortage of ways a submarine project can come to a very quick and watery end, and adding “nuclear” in front only increases them, but this mistake was particularly foolish—someone left the door open. As the submarine dipped below the water, the reactor room (the “nuclear” part of “nuclear submarine”) instantly started flooding. Luckily, the crew was able to resurface the vessel before being placed in any immediate danger, but authorities feared the sea water had corroded the coolant pipes to the reactor, something that almost caused a Royal Navy submarine to melt down in 2012. As a result, they decided the best course of action was to replace all of those pipes.
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What have we learned here? That the size of the mistake is not always equal to the size of its consequences. QA/QC teams, inspections, and other checks can only do so much against the power of human error. It should be the responsibility of everyone to ensure safety and quality on any project, regardless of your role. We’ll likely never know how many catastrophes were narrowly avoided by someone noticing something small was amiss and taking a few seconds to correct it, but we know for certain that every time someone’s dumb mistake creates major consequences, someone else will there to make it into a headline.