Possible Solutions

The media and construction industry are buzzing over the collapse of the bridge girder over Interstate 25 in central Denver, Colorado. And they should.

A daily newspaper story revealed the typical scenario: The engineer appears to claim faulty construction procedures or sequences and the contractor claims full compliance with the plans and specifications. this will probably be followed by the usual battery of investigations by governmental agencies, engineers, insurance companies and the firms involved in the design and construction.

A gaggle of lawyers will be engaged and there will be claims, crossclaims and counterclaims. Probably within a couple weeks prior to the date set for trial (or arbitration hearings) the claims will be settled with payment shared between the design professionals, contractor and owner or their respective insurance carriers. In their settlement papers those parties will recite that their settlement and payments are not to be construed as admissions of liability. There will never be an impartial determination of who was at fault.

As a consequence, the insurance companies will raise their premiums and generate more cash flow to invest in real estate. Ultimately, the general public will bear the cost through higher premiums, construction cost increases and higher taxes.

All that matters very little. What does matter is the fact that one workman was killed and several others injured. Their tragic losses will never be fully compensated for and those losses will not be shouldered by the general public-only by their surviving family members or perhaps by lifelong mental and physical pain and suffering.

There are possible solutions to this type of failure. A local structural engineer who has investigated numerous failures which have occurred during construction has been often heard to complain about the lack of falsework engineering.

“Falsework” is “The temporary structure erected to support work in the process of construction; composed of shoring or vertical posting, form-work for beams and slabs, and lateral bracing.” Construction Dictionary, p. 2081 (General Phoenix, Arizona Chapter #98 of The National Association of Women in Construction 1982).

Construction projects are usually well engineered to withstand wind loads, seismic loads, tension, stresses, compression, dead loads, live loads and sometimes even unstable soil conditions. However it is rare that engineering design includes details for proper bracing and support of structural members during the construction process. Once completely built, the structure will perform well. Until that time, watch out!

One solution would be to require that before a building permit is issued for risky kinds of construction a falsework plan must be submitted to and approved by the appropriate building department or governmental agency involved.

Another solution would be for the plans and specifications to detail falsework requirements or that they require that a falsework plan be prepared by the general contractor and submitted for approval by the project structural engineer before proceeding with structural work.

The loss of life cannot be excused or explained because there was a misunderstanding about or a failure to properly engineer adequate support for structural members during construction.

This is a responsibility which falls upon the entire construction industry. Every professional association and industry group should address the issue.


Update Note: I was wrong! The lawsuit on behalf of the survivors of the workman who was killed and by one of the severely injured workers did go to trial. The result was a verdict against the bridge structural engineers for about $5 million.

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