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Steel Structural System Collapses & Failures

During Construction
Collapses of Steel Structures During
Brandon Rupert, EIT
BAE Penn State 2013

Photo of steel erection Photo Credit: M. Kevin Parfitt


Table of Contents
Case Studies
Union Carbide Building: September 6, 1958
Husky Stadium: February 25, 1987
Big Blue Crane Collapse at Miller Park: July 14, 1990
Lessons Learned
Technical Information & Codes
Additional Resources
According to STRUCTURE magazine, between 1990 & 2008 the Occupational Safety and
Health Administration (OSHA) investigated 96 structural collapses during construction that
involved fatalities and injuries (Ayub 2010 p. 12). Of these 96 incidents, 60 involved the collapse
of various types of steel structures whether temporary or permanent. Every engineer's goal is to
design an economical structure that meets code and operates in a way that best suits the owner,
but a designer's main goal is the safety of the occupants once the building is finished. The
construction process has many risks including erection of the steel frame, ability of any
temporary structures to support day-to-day operation, and the stability of any structures on site.
The Union Carbide Building in Toronto, Husky Stadium in Washington, and the Big Blue Crane
Collapse at Miller Park in Milwaukee are all examples of how stability of steel structures during
construction must be a major concern for design engineers, construction managers, owners, and
all other people involved in any construction project. A structural engineer's job is to design a
building that can stand up to the elements, natural or man-made, for a long period of time. But
often it is assumed a building under construction can sufficiently support loads it will see during

construction because they are generally not as high as what the building is designed for.
Although this may be true, many times the normal assumptions we make during design are not
always sufficient for what a structure may see during construction. It is often necessary to look
into construction loading and the overall construction process on top of the codes and design
loads used to design a building to also ensure the safety of the people working on the project as
well as the occupants once construction is finished. Although design engineers are generally not
responsible for means and methods of construction, each case detailed throughout this article will
demonstrate that many incidents can often be avoided if design engineers are more involved in
the construction process or if engineers are retained by contractors to specifically monitor
Whether a collapse during construction is due to an error in the process or an unforeseen load
being to an unfinished steel frame, the uncertainty of a structure's stability is a major concern
during construction. With construction being as dangerous as it already is, engineers and
contractors must work together where ever possible to try to predict some of the uncertainties
that come with the construction process. In 1987 when the UW Husky's stadium was being
expanded the collapse could have been avoided had the guy wires not been cut out of order
during the demolition of the roof structure. The Union Carbide Building collapse in 1958 was not
necessarily as avoidable due to the unpredictability of Mother Nature, but had the construction
process been different and the concrete spandrel beams added strategically with the rest of the
structure perhaps the collapse may never have happened. In other cases though, Mother Nature
can be a sign something may be unsafe like in the case of the Big Blue Crane at Miller Park. Big
Blue collapsed due to the perfect storm of problems, some natural and some that could have been
avoided had there been more supervision. As anyone in the industry knows, construction is a
very expensive process and getting a project done quickly often means a cheaper or more
profitable project in the end. But with quickness many problems can be overlooked, accidentally
caused, or exacerbated, and no amount of money saved is worth risking the lives of the many
men and women that go to work on these sites every day.

Fig. 1: The pile of rubble in the days after the Union Carbide collapse Photo Credit: Michael
Gilmor, Canadian Steel Institute

Fig. 2: The Union Carbide Building being

demolished Photo Credit: Michael Gilmor,
Canadian Steel Institute
Thankfully the events of September 6th were not nearly as devastating as the could been. The
only person that was on site that evening, because it was a weekend, was a security guard who

happened to be on the other end of the construction site at the time of the collapse (Bradburn
2011). On Eglington Avenue, the heroic and skillful actions of a bus driver saved the lives of
himself and several others. The driver heard the loud crash of the structure and swerved out of
harms way in just enough time to avoid the bus being crushed by the crumbling steel (Bradburn
2011). The damage caused by the Union Carbide Building collapse was luckily only materials,
and a stoppage in construction. Several parked cars were crushed, and none of the original steel
was salvageable even though only one of the several hundred welds failed (Feld 1996 p.147150).
After the investigations were completed as mentioned previously, the building design was
deemed sufficient, but to ensure another collapse would not happen again the consultants
recommended the addition of deep horizontal trusses between columns the columns of each floor
to add more lateral stability during construction and occupancy (Bradburn 2011). The designers
took these recommendations into consideration, and rebuilt the structure with the newly added
trusses, and the Union Carbide Building was completed and opened by July 1960. After opening
in 1960, the Union Carbide operated without incident until 1990 when it was demolished to
make room for new construction as seen in Fig. 2 (Bradburn 2011).

Husky Stadium: February 25, 1987

In 1987 the University of Washington hoped to add to their football team's home, Husky
Stadium. This addition was to be a 17,000 seat addition to the North side of their stadium
completed in time for the next season's opening game against Stanford on September 5th, but the
events of February 25, 1987 would make that goal seem very unreasonable (Griffin). That
morning was a sunny clear day at the University of Washington, but something unusual was
noticed by some of the construction workers on site, a large crack in the steel frame had begun to
form. At 10:07 AM a loud bang was heard all across the UW campus followed by the entire
collapse of the North Stands Addition (Griffin). The entire 12 second collapse was documented
in the time lapse photos shown below in Fig. 2.
After an extensive investigation, the overall design of the structure was deemed sufficient and
Fig. 3: Time lapse photo of roof structure. Photo credit: John Stamets
the collapse was caused by insufficient lateral bracing during the construction process. The roof
structure included guy wires which kept the roof structure from experiencing unusual torsional
forces on the structure, and the demolition process required cutting of these guy wires. This had
to be done in a very controlled and methodical sequence. Unfortunately some of these wires were
cut out of order. This resulted in the twisting of the structure which caused the original crack in
the roof truss support beams mentioned earlier (Griffin).
One contributing factor to the cause of the collapse was how the tubular guy wires were
originally designed. Generally when tubular sections are designed it is assumed the section stays

circular when subjected to deformations (Chen 1988 p. 1088). A report done on local and postbuckling behavior of tubular beam-columns shows that tubular sections with walls significantly
thinner than the diameter of the section subjected to significant deformations can experience
local buckling and distortion of the cross section. The local buckling and distortion of the cross
section causes a reduction in the load carrying capacity and the energy absorption section of the
guy wire (Chen 1988 p.1088). When the workers cut the guy wires out of order, they subjected
the remaining guy wires to loads well above the original design loads. This could have caused
large deformations which reduced the roof structures ability to resist the wind loads experienced
on site.
Thankfully the only damage caused by this incident was economic. All 20-40 of the ironworkers
on site were not hurt or injured because of a construction supervisor who halted construction and
forced everyone off site once the crack in the roof structure was noticed (Griffin). Original
estimates say the damage cost between $500,000 and $1,000,000 (Lange 2001). Although the
collapse was a major setback in the construction schedule, construction was completed prior to
September 5, 1987, the Huskies first home football game of the 87 football season.

Big Blue Crane Collapse at Miller Park: July 14, 1990

With faster construction scheduling the need for faster steel erection has become a must, and this
has resulted in the need for larger booms on mobile cranes (Feld 1996 p. 228). This was the case
at the Milwaukee Brewers' new stadium. The Brewers' stadium was three years in the making,
and involved a state of the are multi-panel retractable roof that was to be supported by curved
truss assemblies. With the size of the site and the size of the roof panels, weighing between 200450 tons and the largest being 176' x 200' x 16', a large crane was a must. The crane, referred to
as Big Blue, had a 340' lattice boom w/ a 200' jib, 2 crawler tracks, and had a 2400 kip counter
weight, as seen in Fig. 3 (NIOSH 1999). Big Blue had a maximum capacity of 1040 kips, well
under the weight of the final roof section to be hoisted into place (NIOSH 1999).

Fig. 4: Big Blue Crane Structure Photo Credit: NIOSH FACE Report 99-11
(Video 1: Big Blue Crane Collapse Video Credit: YouTube)

On July 14, 1999 the construction of the Milwaukee Brewers would be halted in a very
disastrous series of events. On this day, there would be between 400-700 workers working on
various parts of the project. Five of these workers were part of the lift crew which was under the
direction of one lift supervisor. Like all of the roof sections, the section to be lifted on July 14th
was constructed on the ground to limit the risk of fall hazards and to speed of the time of
construction. Each lift began at a pick point to the North of the site, where the section was

hoisted and checked to ensure it was properly suspended. Once that was done the section would
then be swung to the west over the south end of the stadium and moved to the set point at the
south end of the stadium where the section would then be lowered into place, as seen in Fig. 4
below (NIOSH 1999).
When hoisting a section this large, it requires frequent checks of the attitude of the member being
hoisted. The attitude at which an object hangs depends on the location of the center of gravity in
relation to the attachment points and the lengths of the lines suspending the section (NIOSH
1999). Once the section was hoisted it was noticed that the connections at the south end of the
section were higher than the north end connections and this had to be fixed to ensure the section
could be properly placed (NIOSH 1999). There are several ways to adjust this; move the
attachment points, shortening the suspension lines, or add weight to one side to lower it. It was
decided that with the time constraints and the size of the section, the best route was to add a 6500
lb. concrete block to the south end to adjust the height of the connections (NIOSH 1999). This
addition made an already difficult lift even more difficult, and the perfect storm of events that
would take the lives of three construction workers had just begun.

Fig. 5: Critical Crane Locations Photo Credit: NIOSH FACE Report 99-11
Once the 6500 lbs. was added, the lift supervisor noticed the crawlers of the front transport
sinking into the ground. To do a lift like this the crane must be level, but swinging the section to
the west would put the crane out of level (NIOSH 1999). The decision was then made to move
the crane to more competent ground to ensure the crane stayed level. By moving the crane to a
new location, the crew was then forced to change the lift plan. This new lift plan called for the
section to be hoisted over the north end of the stadium rather than the south end and swung to the
east to be lowered into place (NIOSH 1999). As has been explained in previous sections of this
case study, wind forces can cause many significant accidents, and that was not any different
today. Both the steel erection and the roof construction contractors had a strict policy that
prohibited and lift operation to be done if the wind was greater than 20 mph at the top of the
crane (NIOSH 1999). Once the section reached its highest point in the lift, 300 feet, the lift
supervisor called for regular updates on the wind conditions. At approximately 2:30 PM a mastmounted anemometer read wind conditions between 17-20 mph, but the lift was not halted
(NIOSH 1999).
The reasons for the lift operation not being halted are left up to much speculation, but more
information can be found at the Big Blue Crane Collapse case study also found on the failures
wiki website. Big Blue traveled approximately 500 feet to reach the set point and came to a stop,
and the section would be stabilized while it was lowered (NIOSH 1999). The section needed to
be stabilized because once the crane came to a stop the section began moving in a pendulum
motion, swinging Northward. The plan was to stabilize the section on the next swing when it was
going southward, but the pendulum motion along with the high winds caused the crane to
become unstable (NIOSH 1999). With the crane becoming unstable it further increased the
swinging of the roof section and the crane then tipped north and slightly eastward. The
counterweight was now not enough to bring the swinging section, the tipping crane, and the
added weight used to adjust the attitude back down to stable ground, and the whole crane tipped

and crashed into the stadium wall parapet which snapped the craned at about the midpoint of the
With the sudden nature of the collapse, taking less than 40 seconds, as seen in Video 1 above,
none of the lift operators observing the lift in hoisted platforms were able to move in time. The
roof section swung into a platform hoisted on another part of the site with three workers on it,
killing all three of the workers when they fell the 300' to the ground below (NIOSH 1999). An
investigation was done on the crane collapse, and showed that there were several contributing
factors to the crane collapse. The combination of the side loads from the wind on both the crane
and the roof section, the out of level ground conditions, and the pendulum motion of the section
all contributed to the perfect storm of conditions resulting in the death of three workers (NIOSH
Many accidents are completely unavoidable, but actions must be taken to minimize the risk. It
seems that some of the risk factors explained above were well covered and policies were in place
to avoid them, but those policies were not completely followed during this particular lift. On top
of that it seems some factors may not have been very well analyzed. Whether it was the ground
conditions, the wind conditions, or overall lift plan many things could have been done to help
avoid this accident. Many of these will be outlined in the Lessons Learned section of this case
study below.

Lessons Learned
There is never only one culprit to blame in any failure case. Very often there are several different
causes of a collapse. In the Big Blue crane collapse it was the combination of wind loads, uneven
ground, some incidents could have possibly been avoided had more care been taken.
Structural engineers are very rarely consulted when it comes to the means and methods of
construction until after something goes wrong, and it is virtually impossible for an engineer to
account for everything that may or may not happen in the future. However, it is often helpful to
consult an engineer or for the engineer to have specific specifications that pertain to a structure's
construction. Simple check of the structure's stability may have called for more bracing.
levels to ensure a safe working environment and safe, economical, and innovative final product.
Considering the world is not always as ideal as one would prefer, everyone on any project must
be educated in all areas of the project, even if in the smallest of capacities, to ensure everything
comes together in a safe manner.

Technical Information & Codes

There are several different codes and regulations that govern the design of structures and dictate
the types of loads structural engineers must design for. When designing a building a structural
engineer will use which ever version of ASCE 7 governs at the time to determine the loads the

In an industry that is moving in the direction of a more integrated process between owners,
designers, and builders with methods such as building information modeling and integrated
project delivery, we hope to eliminate any problems a project may have. With a more integrated
process engineers, architects, and contractors must also work together to try to create a safer
environment before, during, and after construction. Although the only accident discussed in this
case study involving casualties was the Big Blue crane collapse, the other two could have been
just as deadly if not more had it not been for a combination of lucky timing and heads up
supervision. Everyone on a project hopes all of their colleagues go home to their families each
and every night and sometimes there are accidents that can not be avoided. That is why all
involved in the construction industry must learn from the accidents that have occurred, take away
the lessons they have taught us, and work closer together with other disciplines to avoid
accidents at all costs. Structural engineers are not always involved in the means and methods of
construction, but sometimes talking with contractors and working with them can go a long way
and save lives.

American Council for Construction Education (ACCE) (2000). Document 103: Standards
and Criteria for Accreditation of Post Secondary Construction Education Degree
Programs." ACCE, San Antonio, TX, p. 10.
Ayub, Mohammad (Dec. 2010), Structural Collapses During Construction: Lessons
Learned, 1990-2008. Structure Magazine, 12-19.
o Gives statistics on deaths caused by structural collapses during construction as
well as several different cases.
Bradburn, Jamie (2011). Historicist: The Collapse of the Union Carbide Building
Torontoist, <http://torontoist.com> (Oct. 7, 2012).
o This is an article that gives eyewitness accounts of the collapse in newspapers
from the day of the collapse. It also includes quotes from first responders and
building officials on potential causes, and cites later articles after the cause was
determined and once the building was opened.

Chen, Wai-Fah and Sohal, Iqbal S. (1988). Local and Post-Buckling Behavior of Tubular
Beam-Columns. J. Struct. Eng., 114(5), 1073-1090.
o This journal has technical information on why the Husky Stadium roof could have
collapsed in a more general form. The information talks about the effects of large
deformations on tube steel and how the assumptions used in regular design in the
80s may not have been sufficient enough.

Table of Contents
Causes and Prevention of Structural Failures
The design of structures should satisfy three fundamental requirements:
1. Stability: The structure should be stable under the action of loads.
2. Strength: The structure should resist safely stresses induced by the loads.
3. Serviceability: The structure should perform satisfactorily under service loads.
Stability, strength and serviceability can only be achieved by following basic design
principles. This paper presents different structural failures, so other engineers can
benefit from this knowledge.

Collapse of a Residential Building

One evening in Vijayawada, a three story residential building (Fig 2.) collapsed a day
before occupancy killing watchman & his family.
On inspection, it was found that one of the building columns was constructed on
filled up well. The old well is filled with sand and an Isolated footing was constructed
on the well. As the construction progressed, load on column increased. The
foundation has settled, leading to the failure of the building.


Isolated footing is a wrong choice for the foundation on the old well. For that column
a well foundation should have been a better choice.

Vibration of Slab
Owner of a college building complained that a floor slab in one of the rooms is
vibrating, when students were walking or jumping on the slab. On inspection, no
structural cracks were found in the slab. The size of the slab is 8m X 9m and it is
supported on four sides by beams. It is continuous on three sides. The thickness of
slab was 150mm. It appears that deflection check was not done in the slab design.

Generally, slab thickness is calculated based on deflection criteria. A proper design
of slab may have given a safe design. The slab had failed in deflection check,
however it is safe in flexure.

Structural Cracks in the Slab

A dining hall of size 18m X 48m (Fig 3.) was constructed with two bays in east west
direction and six bays in north south direction. Size of each slab is 8m X 9m and the
slabs were designed as two way slabs. 1mm wide cracks developed in the slab at
the location of maximum negative bending moment.

On inspection, it was found that the structural design was correct. Non-destructive
tests revealed that concrete had required compressive strength. Thickness of slab
was adequate from consideration of flexure & deflection. On further investigation, it
was found that the top reinforcement has a clear cover of 130mm instead of 20mm.
since the top steel is placed close to neutral axis, it became ineffective in carrying
negative bending moment and hence the slab cracked at all the supports.
It is apparent that the rod bender fabricated the steel for 150mm thick slab and the
site engineer did not understand the importance of top steel bars.
The slab became two way simply supported slab instead of two way continuous
slab. The dining hall is still functional. But before another floor is added the slab
should be checked.

Inspection of steel by structural engineering before placing concrete would have
prevented this failure.

Cracks in Walls

In one of the college buildings, diagonal cracks were observed in many walls. The
cracks pattern did not fit the standard cause of wall cracks. The plan & section of
the building are shown in Fig4 and Fig 5. Structural analysis of the building was
performed using STAAD pro software. From the analysis results, it was apparent that
the frame did not meet the deflection criteria even though the beam has satisfied
the deflection criteria.

Due to Architectural reasons, the columns were oriented in the frame along
minimum moment of Inertia. The excess deflection of beam & column has caused
the cracks in brick walls.

Deflection of frame should be checked for safe design.

Various structural failures that have reached limit state of collapse & serviceability
were presented. Following are the failures presented here:

1. Limit state of collapse due to stability

2. Limit state of collapse due to welding
3. Limit state of collapse due to unsatisfactory filling of old well
4. Limit state of serviceability due to excess deflections
5. Limit state of serviceability due to incorrect fabrication of steel
6. Limit state of serviceability due to orientation of columns
All of the above failure, may have been avoided by following fundamental concepts
of structural design.

Article by
Finn Orfano
Edited & published by
Haresh Khemani
Oct 11, 2009
Why some structures fail and others do
not. How the failure could have been prevented. These are the
questions many builders and owners would be
interested. Structural failure
is an important subject that needs
more deliberations.

How Structural Failure Occurs

Structural failure is concerning reduction in the lo
ad bearing capability of a structural component or element,
or the main structure. Structural failure is commenced when the
material is stressed to its upper strength
limit, thus causing rupture or extreme deformations. The
ultimate strength of the materia
l or the system is the
limit of the load bearing capacity. On reaching this limit, the
construction materials could already been

damaged, and their load carrying capacity is suddenly

decreased permanently. If the system is properly
designed, a local collap
se should normally not be a cause of instant or gradual failure
of the complete building.
The ultimate failure strength of the construction elements
should be carefully considered in the design of
structures to prevent failure.

Design Parameters
A progress
ive collapse of a building or structure is initiated from local
fracture that later spreads to include the
main section of the facility. Current concerns with such
collapses stem basically from modifications in building
practices and improper structural de
signs. Strategies for mitigating the structural failures can be
using a thoughtful risk assessment, supported by modern
computational tools. It is important to arrange soil
testing on the actual site before the detailed planning starts.
, like all construction, are designed to
sustain specific loads without excessive deformation to prevent
failure. The live loads consist of the weights of
humans, objects, rain, snow, and the wind pressure, while the
dead load is that of the building itsel
f. With
buildings consisting of a few floors, strength usually involves
adequate rigidity, and the vital design is
essentially that of the roof that will endure the weather effects.
However, the roof design is of a minor
significance for tall buildings, an
d the major considerations are that of the building supports.

Prevention o
f Structural Failures
Structures may fail due to numerous reasons that need to be
thoroughly deliberated during the initiation,
design, planning, executing, and the monitoring proces
ses of the project. It is essential to understand the load
conditions on the structure, and accordingly design the
structural elements and the materials used on the
construction. Faulty construction has been the most important
cause of structural failure.
This includes the
use of salty sand to produce concrete, use of inferior steel,
improver riveting, incorrect nut tightening torques,
defective welding, and other wrong engineering practices.
Design of structures should also consider the
seismic effects to
prevent damage due to the earthquakes. Earthquakes may
cause problems concerning the
foundations when the damp land liquefies.
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