You no doubt remember the recent news about the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. The bridge in Baltimore – prominently featured in The Wire – collapsed after being hit by an out-of-control container ship. The bridge was cleared of traffic after the captain of the ship issued a mayday, but six construction workers were sadly killed.

The ease with which the container ship took out the bridge points to an interesting aspect of risk management: how we consider the advancement of technology and the world around us in the context of existing infrastructure. While the disaster may not have been easily foreseeable or preventable, it does highlight a potential issue with how we approach safety – and the need to be proactive at all times.

What we know so far

The Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed at 1:27am after being struck by the MV Dali, a large container ship. The ship had lost all power, with the captain transmitting a mayday three minutes later, and asking for traffic across the bridge to be stopped. This was implemented almost immediately and prevented any traffic being on the bridge when it fell, with the only casualties being from a construction crew, who were not able to be alerted

The enormous size and weight of the Dali overcame the dolphin and fender protections around the bridge, designed to stop smaller ships from colliding with the structure. The bridge collapsed almost entirely as soon as the ship hit one of its piers as it used a single continuous truss, meaning that there was no redundancy if one supporting pier was lost. This is a common design philosophy and not necessarily a flaw in the bridge design.

Single continuous truss bridges actually confer certain benefits, with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco actually being converted into a continuous truss bridge in order to make it more earthquake resistant. Yet while there was no known defect in the design or condition of the bridge, the sudden and dramatic collapse has nonetheless made an iconic piece of infrastructure – and others like it around the world – seem exceptionally vulnerable.

Rather than the bridge design, the clearest issue is with the way we consider and manage risk in the wake of technological and societal developments. The bridge was built to and remains up to code, and posed no safety risks to anyone using it. Instead, the risk factor was an exterior and unforeseen one: the rise of huge container ships that would have dwarfed the original designers’ expectations.

Retrofitting safety

Container ships have gotten bigger than ever, with increasing volumes in international trade driven by the rise of ecommerce and fast fashion. The biggest container ships deal predominantly with large volumes of small manufactured goods, and not materials or larger luxury goods such as cars, which have to be driven on and off (RORO ferries).

The capacity for ageing infrastructure to deal with these massive ships isn’t exactly a surprise. Cast your minds back to the plight of the Ever Given, the ship which got stuck in the Suez Canal. The canal has since been made deeper and wider in order to accommodate ships of this size, with the Ever Given being among the largest ever constructed.

It’s clearly not practical to modify an entire bridge to cater to these changes. At least, this is the excuse that is usually given, not just for bridges, but for many kinds of retrofitting. Health and safety laws through the ages have included a ‘grandfather’ clause, which did not require old buildings, vehicles or structures to be brought up to newer standards, either for reasons of cost, feasibility, or historical preservation. Take the Our Lady of the Angels School fire in Chicago, which killed 92 pupils and three nuns. Despite the school only having one fire escape, no fire doors and no automatic alarm system, among other issues, a grandfather clause meant the building was exempt from regulations which required them.

An example to the contrary is the Bayonne Bridge in New York, which had its roadway raised by 64 feet to allow larger ships to pass underneath it. This is only one approach, and an expensive one, but it highlights the work that can be done to make bridges less vulnerable. The protections around the Francis Scott Key bridge designed to stop any ships from veering too close to the piers failed dramatically, as they were also not designed for a ship of this size. This much cheaper intervention failed to keep up with the advancements in freight, where the design life of a ship is far shorter than a bridge.

Adaptive and proactive safety

It’s not too much of an extrapolation to say that we see this all the time in health and safety. Conditions change in a workplace to the extent that old rules are no longer effective. A business starts storing hazardous chemicals, but doesn’t update its policies to reflect this. A new fire risk is added, but no consideration is given to how this might affect fire safety, and potentially impact on key evacuation routes or procedures. New electrical vehicles are introduced without considering how the lack of engine noise may compromise pedestrian safety.

In short, we too often see health & safety handbooks and assessments as documents that are set in stone, covering all potential risks. In reality, they should be fluid and adaptable, reacting to changes in the environment around them, and accommodating new risk factors with sensible, practical solutions. Sometimes, people can’t see the wood for the trees, and ignore obvious risks or hazards simply because they aren’t in the handbook, and they haven’t been told to look out for them.

This can be a failure of individual responsibility, but it’s more frequently and fundamentally structural. It’s about the seriousness with which we take safety, and how we assess and implement it on a daily basis. The Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse may not have been a result of poor design or oversight, but it is reflective of vulnerabilities that exist in all areas and all walks of life: our difficulty in seeing how the ripple of one small change can have devastating consequences.