Japan Earthquake Inspires Re-Evaluation
of Safety Engineering

Japan Earthquake Inspires Re-Evaluation of Safety Engineering - Safety Engineering

On April 7, 2011, more than 200 people including safety, health, and government officials gathered at Roosevelt University in Chicago to commemorate the horrendous fire at a New York City garment factory 100 years ago in which 146 men and women perished.

Many of the victims jumped to their deaths on the pavement below to try to escape the deadly fire—a fire that could not be extinguished due to lack of safety products and programs. Many also hurried down the elevator on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, in a desperate attempt to outrun the fire but ended up being trampled under foot, as thousands watched helplessly from the streets below.

The horrible-yet-preventable fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that ended the lives of so many young men and women led to the creation of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) in New York City on October 14, 1911. The ASSE is now based in Chicago.

Over the years, protecting the safety and health of men and women in the workplace became so important that President Nixon on Dec. 29, 1970, signed an act into law creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Despite all the efforts taken to minimize workplace fatalities, large numbers of casualties still occur. According to a study conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), some 64,333 civilian workers died from injuries between 1992 and 2002.

The NIOSH findings also revealed that the fatalities cost the American economy over $53 billion, a staggering amount in terms of societal expenditure.

Japan Earthquake Inspires Re-Evaluation of Safety Engineering - Safety Engineering

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire led to the creation of the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) in New York City on October 14, 1911.

"There has been a lot of progress in safety issues. But we need to do more as we face new challenges, especially after the horrible catastrophe in Japan," says Terri Norris, president of ASSE.


One of the critical challenges the ASSE members and safety professionals around the world need to contend with is how to minimize the huge loss of life and property in the event of a future catastrophe like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011 that claimed over 10,000 lives and destroyed property worth billions of dollars.

The question has gained special significance because seismic experts believe Japan is considered the best-prepared country in the world to face such events. Its buildings, roads, and bridges are built with the most advanced engineering technology capable of preventing and minimizing such destruction.

As the Japanese experienced so painfully when the earthquake and tsunami hit, the most durable structures were no match for the fury of the twin disasters.

"The latest catastrophe has forced us to rethink and evaluate the whole concept of seismic design," says Tak Ishizuka, a bridge engineering expert. "Design specifications would be reviewed in consideration of the latest disaster, especially the tsunami. In my opinion, the biggest cause of the massive destruction is the tsunami and not the tremor. If there were no tsunamis, the damage would have been far less and limited."

Design Specification

According to experts, engineers and safety professionals will now focus on studying and re-evaluating the following aspects while making design specifications aimed at minimizing loss of life and property in future disasters:

  • statistical analysis of earthquakes/tsunamis in the past
  • dynamic analysis
  • structural analysis
  • selection of structural materials
  • geological analysis/soil properties
  • site conditions
  • load due to earthquakes/tsunamis.

Lessons Learned

Great tragedies provoke fresh thinking and action. As it happened, the 1995 Hanshin Earthquake led to radical changes in design specifications for high-rise buildings, bridges, and highways in Japan. "We've learned many lessons from the Hanshin disaster. And we'll try to learn from the twin disasters," says Ishizuka.

The design specifications will be revised based on the new lessons, he says. But he adds quickly that there is no perfect design that can prevent natural disasters. "The only thing we can do is to incorporate new facts [and] knowledge to engineering and technology in the future computer analysis, he says."

Arshad Mahmud is an independent writer.

The latest catastrophe has forced us to rethink and evaluate the whole concept of seismic design.

Tak Ishizuka, a bridge engineering expert


March 2012

by Arshad Mahmud, ASME.org