Is Engineering Dangerous? My Near Death Experience

Is engineering dangerous? In most instances no. But my near-death experience made me reflect on the sacrifices made by engineers before me.

Many people, including myself, often forget about the backbone of today’s comforts. Because of our busy lives, we think life as we know it today, always existed. We flip on a power switch, use clean water, and drive on smooth roads without a second thought.

But sometimes, it’s important to reflect on the history of our modern comforts. Having perspective and understanding of the sacrifices made by many engineers brings gratitude.

I’ll share my near-death experience as an engineer while sprinkling in photos from the experience.

The dangerous engineering project

amazing view in mountains in en route to hydroelectric facility
Amazing view of mountains en route to the hydroelectric facility

My colleague and I received a ground grid analysis assignment for a hydroelectric facility. It was a crucial project, as a grounding issue could cause the facility to shut down. Then, countless homes and businesses would be without power in the midst of winter.

To make matters worse, the neighboring power generation sources were having problems. So, it was imperative we kept this hydro facility fully operational.

The hydro facility sat located on a heavily snow-packed mountain in California. The untouched snow painted the mountain surface glistening white. While the glow from the sun accentuated the mountain like a Bob Ross painting.

Once you travel up this mountain though, the beauty can quickly fade. The road can become treacherous under the hand of harsh and unrelenting weather.

And you guessed it, we had to travel up this mountain in the middle of the winter months. Although it was not an uncommon trip, we did our due diligence to select a travel date with calm weather.

The drive up the mountain

On the drive up, nothing seemed abnormal. Snow covered the greenery all around like a postcard, and the sun peaked through the clouds. Additionally, the road was fairly clear of snow and ice.

As we drove higher up the mountain though, I noticed the snowfall was picking up in intensity and volume. Eventually, all we could see in front of us was a blanket of white, which obscured our vision.

On one side of the road were tall snow-covered pine trees for as far as the eye could see. On the other side, there was a steep drop-off into nothingness. Not a drive to make if you fear heights.

The sudden road conditions had caught us off guard. Nature had no care for what we humans view as a good cause. Nature will continue to do, what it has done for millions of years.

The dangers on the road

dangerous road to hydroelectric facility
Road to the hydroelectric facility

We continued climbing the mountain higher and higher, even as the weather conditions worsened. We just drove slower, no faster than 10 miles per hour, with our tire chains fastened.

Along the way, we hit a long stretch of the road without guardrails. This only magnified our anxiety, especially since we reached a point of no return. Not enough space existed to reverse our car, and what if another car was behind us?…

To this very day, the drive is still vividly etched into my mind. Because we checked off all the following items, which you never want to experience when driving:

  • Horrendous weather
  • An inclined narrow windy road
  • Poor traction from icy and snowy roads
  • Poor visibility
  • No guardrail
  • High elevation

It’s worth noting, at this height, you need authorization to enter and drive, due to the protected hydro facilities.

Losing control of the car

Somewhere during our ascent, our car suddenly lost control for a few seconds. We swerved one way and then slashed back the other way. For a split second, we hugged the edge of the mountain where the guardrail was nonexistent.

The few seconds we lost control felt like an eternity. My only fear was falling off the mountainside, as my heart beat out from my chest.

Miraculously, the car regained traction. If it wasn’t for the 4-wheel drive and our tire chains, the outcome could’ve been much different.

But the journey wasn’t done. We had to continue moving forward and couldn’t even stop to regain our composure.

For the rest of the trip, we drove even slower. Both of us were dead silent, still in shock from what had just happened, while fearing another incident. I remember the last thing I wanted to do was look to my right and see the drop down the mountain.

In the end, we reached the hydroelectric facility with a harrowing story to tell. We successfully resolved the grounding issue and kept the hydro facility operational.

My Reflection on the dangers in engineering

What I experienced happens in many types of engineering to varying degrees. Dangers in engineering fieldwork aren’t as uncommon as you may think.

When you venture outside of your office bubble, you’ll face real-world dangers. And if you rewind just a century ago, the dangers were magnitudes greater. Many of the safety regulations we have today didn’t exist then. The dangers could come in the following forms:

  • Reviewing a treacherous site for a potential new project
  • Overviewing and inspecting an active busy construction site
  • Troubleshooting unsafe and undiagnosed problems in the field
  • Inventing and testing in unsafe environments

What’s more, the limited technology of the time created the following additional dangers, which are foreign to us today:

  • Power tools: these tools didn’t exist to help with inspection and construction work.
  • Land travel: the primary form of transportation was by rail, but trains didn’t travel high up into the mountains.
  • Air travel: helicopters were not yet invented. When they became available for public use, they were too fragile for construction work.
  • Software and machine: computers didn’t exist to assist with design work. So, projects required human labor in dangerous site conditions.

Design and construction of an old-age hydroelectric facility

penstock at hydroelectric facility
Penstock and high voltage transmission lines at a hydroelectric facility

The initial design and construction of this hydro facility are remarkable.

In the beginning design phase, engineers scaled the mountain with mules. They took measurements without the fancy tools we rely on today. Then painstakingly, they inspected and planned out every last component of the design.

Next, in the construction phase, mules transported all parts of the massive facility up the mountain. Each component was carefully strapped to a mule and transported up an unpaved road one step at a time. The cargo included parts for the penstock, generators, and concrete for structures.

Through the winter, the mules marched while workers welded and poured concrete. Alongside them, engineers watched over the construction in the unforgiving weather, to ensure design compliance.

These men are true heroes. With their bare hands, they singlehandedly paved the way for this amazing world we all live in today. It’s an understatement to say they were as tough as nails.

“Is engineering dangerous?” wrap up

Engineering can be dangerous, but it highly depends on your job.

In some positions, you’ll sit cooped up in an office all day long. The only danger is the lack of fresh air and exercise.

But then there’s a group of engineers who work directly in the line of danger. They can fall into a cement mixer, crash their vehicle, fall from great heights, and so much more.

Despite this, engineering has become much safer in recent decades. With each accident, new and better regulations are put in place to protect engineers.

In conclusion, it’s important to remember everything in life comes with a cost. There’s no such thing as a free lunch!

Do you find engineering dangerous? What dangers in engineering have you seen or heard about? What’s one thing about modern life you appreciate the most? 

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