Is Engineering Dangerous? My Near Death Experience

Is engineering dangerous? In most instances not, but it can be. My near-death experience made me reflect on the sacrifice of many past engineers.

Every person, including myself, forgets about the backbone of today’s comforts. Because of our busy lives, we think life as we know it today, always existed.

And I get it.

We flip on a power switch, use clean water, and drive on flat roads without a second thought. But sometimes, it’s important to reflect on the history of our modern comforts.

This reality check puts things into perspective of how grateful we should all be. Because certain jobs in engineering are flat out dangerous. And without these jobs, life as we know it wouldn’t exist.

I experienced danger as a working engineer first hand, which I’ll discuss. I’m going to also sprinkle in some photos I took of my experience.

The dangerous engineering project

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

My colleague and I received a ground grid analysis assignment for a hydroelectric facility. It was a critical project, as the facility would shut down if the grounding issue wasn’t resolved.

This was a major concern for various reasons. One being the facility powers countless homes and businesses. Also at the time, neighboring power generation sources were having problems.

Thus, it was imperative we kept this hydro facility fully operational.

Moving along, this hydro facility sits on top of a heavily snow-packed mountain in California.

Safe to say, the snow always paints the surface of this mountain glistening white. This makes the mountain look majestic year-round. Especially as sun rays beam down and reflect off from the snow.

But, the beauty quickly takes a backseat if you travel up this mountain in the winter months. The road becomes treacherous and the weather is vicious and unkind.

And you guessed it. This is exactly when we had to travel up the mountain. It was the tail end of the winter months.

But important to note, this was a common trip. It wasn’t an out of the blue one-time event.

Also, we had selected a trip date where the weather checked to be calm with the stormy skies resting. So we had the green light to go.

The drive up the mountain

In the drive up, nothing seemed abnormal. There was snow all around, but the sun peaked through the clouds shining brightly. While the road was fairly clear of snow and ice.

But, the higher we drove up the mountain, I noticed a greater amount of falling snow.

Both the intensity and volume of snow increased. All we saw was a blanket of white in front of us, which obscured our vision.

Also, on one side of the road were tall snow-covered pine trees for as far as your eye could see. On the other side was a steep drop-off where you could peak down the side of the mountain into the abyss.

If you have a fear of heights, this was certainly not the drive for you.

At this height though, what we saw resembled a beautiful Bob Ross winter painting. But beauty was the last thing on our minds the higher we climbed.

The road conditions had caught us off guard, given all the initial weather planning we had done.

Clearly, nature has no care for what we humans label as a “good cause.” Nature will continue to do, what it has done for billions of years.

The dangers on the road

dangerous road to hydroelectric facility
Road to the hydroelectric facility

We continued to climb higher and higher up the mountain. We found the weather conditions further worsened.

So we drove slower and slower, no faster than 15 miles per hour. This was on top of having tire chains on too.

To top it off, there was a long stretch of the road that was missing a guardrail and posts. This magnified the anxiety and fear inside of us.

To this very day, I remember everything vividly. It’s all etched in my mind. Because we checked off every item you’d prefer never to experience when driving:

  • Horrendous weather
  • An inclined narrow windy road
  • Poor traction with icy and snowy roads
  • Poor visibility
  • No guard rail and posts
  • High elevation

To point out, at this height, you had to have the authorization to enter and drive. It made sense, given the dangerous driving conditions.

What’s more, we were at a point where we couldn’t turn back. There was just not enough road space to reverse the car.

Plus, we were almost at the hydro facility. So we continued to slowly drive higher and higher.

Losing control of the car

Somewhere in our ascent, the car all of a sudden lost control for a few seconds. The car swerved one way and then slashed back the other way.

The few seconds we lost control seemed like an eternity. The car had swerved near the mountain’s edge where there wasn’t a guardrail or posts.

Now keep in mind, swerving at even 10 miles per hour is frightening when you’re staring down an endless fall.

At that very moment, my only concern was the steep fall from the side of the mountain. The entire time my heart was beating out of my chest.

Then miraculously, the car suddenly regained traction. If it wasn’t for the 4-wheel drive and our tire chains, the day could have ended much differently.

With the near-death incident behind us, we knew we had to continue marching forward. We couldn’t even stop for a moment to regain our composure. Because we’d become the perfect invisible wall for another vehicle to slam into.

So for the rest of the trip, we drove extra slow. Both of us were dead silent too, trying to grasp what had just happened. I remember the last thing I wanted to do was look to my right and see the long drop down the mountain.

To top it off, the time passed by excruciatingly slowly. But eventually, we arrived at the project site.

In the end, we reached the hydroelectric facility. We resolved the grounding issue, and we kept the hydro facility operational.

My Reflection over the dangers in engineering

What I experienced happens in many types of engineering to varying degrees. Dangers in engineering are not as uncommon as you may think.

My experience highlighted this reality for me in big bold letters.

When you venture outside of your office, real-world dangers exist. You’re no longer sitting safely inside the bubble of four walls.

Plus, just going back a century, the dangers in engineering were magnitudes greater.

In fact, deaths were common. And not just for construction workers, but also for engineers who worked on-site.

Many of the safety regulations we have today didn’t exist then. The dangers in engineering came at you in the following ways:

  • 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 added dangers that are foreign to us today.  These limitations include the following:

  • Power tools: these tools didn’t exist to help with any inspection and inventive work.
  • Land travel: the primary form of transportation was with trains. Trains, however, didn’t travel high up into the mountains.
  • Air travel: helicopters were not yet invented. Then when they became available for public use, they were too brittle for any real-world work.
  • Software and machine: computers weren’t around to assist with design work. Thus, projects required a lot of dangerous on-site human labor.

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 I find simply amazing.

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

In the construction phase, mules took all parts of the massive facility up the mountain. Each component was carefully strapped to a mule traveling up one step at a time.

Some pieces included parts for the penstock, generators, and concrete for structures.

What’s more, a perfectly paved road didn’t exist for the mules to travel on.

Also, construction continued in the unforgiving weather. Workers welded pieces together, poured concrete, and did so much more.

At the same time, engineers watched over the construction to ensure design compliance. I can only imagine the hardships with the cold weather endlessly slapping you in the face.

To point out, I’m simply amazed at the workers on the site. I’m talking about the people who implemented the engineering design. They’re the true heroes.

As they say, people back then were as tough as nails. With their bare hands, they singlehandedly paved the way for this amazing world we all live in today.

“Is engineering dangerous?” wrap up

The dangers in engineering highly depend on your job.

In some engineering jobs, 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 small group of engineering jobs, which place you in the line of danger. I’m talking about engineers who venture out into the real world, or who get their hands dirty in factories.

You can fall into a cement mixer, crash your vehicle, fall from great heights, and so much more.

Overall though, engineering has become much safer in recent decades. With each death, newer and better regulations take shape to protect engineers.

In the end, hopefully, this all highlights how everything in life comes at 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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