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The Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse

Module by: William Frey. E-mail the author

Based on: EAC Toolkit - Student Module Template by Jose A. Cruz-Cruz, William Frey

Summary: This module uses the Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse Case to teach the engineering virtue that Charles Harris terms "techno-social sensitivity." In this preliminary version, it will consist primarily of a short summary of the case, a decision point exercise, and a presentation that discusses different dimensions of risk in the context of engineering. Eventually this module will be expanded into a full blown case study designed to teach students frameworks in socio-technical system analysis and ethical problem solving.

Key to Links:

- The first link is to a series of video presentations given by 
Henry Petroski as companions to his book, To Engineer is Human.
 Petroski argues that engineering advances through study of 
failures.  His account of the Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse
Case is followed closely in this module.

- The second link is to an account of the Hyatt Regency Walkway
Collapse Case taken from Online Ethics.  Materials were pre-
pared by a group from Texas A and M University.  The link to
TAMU also includes photos taken the day after the accident.

- See Online Ethics for suggestions on how to site case materials
Figure 1: This is an example of an embedded link. (Go to "Files" tab to delete this file and replace it with your own files.)
Word Version of this Template


On July 17, 1981, the second and fourth story walkways of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency Hotel collapsed killing 114 people and seriously injuring an additional 200.

According to Petroski,a “deviation in the design in the way the rods connected the lower skywalk to the upper and the upper to the ceiling of the atrium was clearly described and zeroed in on as the ultimate cause of the accident.” Petroski: 86

Responsibility in Engineering

Herbert Fingarette has famously characterized criminal responsibility as "response to essential relevance." Modified for the moral realm, this becomes "moral response to essential moral relevance." This simple formula--which will be shortened to response to relevance--is readily applicable to engineering. Uncovering essential moral relevance requires what Charles Harris terms "technical-socio sensitivity, the ability to uncover and hone in on what is morally and technically relevant in a situation. This represents the cognitive dimension of moral responsibility.

But moral responsibility in engineering is more than simply the ability to hone in on moral and technical components present in a situation. It also includes a volitional set of capacities that accomplish the development and execution of actions that respond morally to the moral relevance of a situation.

This module takes a complex case and invites students to enter into its key decisive moments. Students are invited to take up a participant perspective within the case. They attend to a complex array of factors, select those that are morally relevant, and then make real time decisions responding to that relevance. The skill emphasized here is the ability to see precisely when in this case safety and risk become important. Response to relevance lies in making decisions that prevent accidents and realize safety.

What you need to know …

Key Terms for Module

  • Moral responsibility in engineering can be unpacked through "response to relevance." The cognitive skills necessary to uncovering relevance lie in technical-social sensitivity. This module will provide a clear example by showing the events that foretold the collapse of the Hyatt Regency Walkway. Response to relevance, the volitional skills, lie in the ability to channel engineering skill and knowledge toward developing effective, responsive action. In this case, response to relevance requires developing designs that integrate safety with manufacturability and beauty.
  • Safety is acceptable risk as determined by the settled value principles of a given social group.
  • Risk is the probability of harm. It presents four dimensions: risk assessment, risk perception, risk communication, and risk management.
  • Risk assessment is the scientific process of determining as exactly as possible the probability of harm attendant on any given engineering project or service. It consists of carrying out a fault tree analysis, an event tree analysis, animal bioassays, and epidemiological studies. All of these studies help to hone in on risk but always with a remainder of uncertainty. The way in which this uncertainty is treated and distributed is an important part of the ethics of risk.
  • Risk perception is the structured manner in which the public perceives and evaluates risk. The acceptability of risk is dependent on its voluntariness, the amount of control the risk taker has, the expected benefits measured against the expected harms, as well as dread and unknown factors. From the standpoint of risk assessment, the perception of risk can be irrational because it deviates from given risk assessment conclusions. But taken in a broader sense that factors in the socio-technical system, risk perception is fully and richly rational.
  • Risk communication is the effective and moral communication of risk information, especially risk assessment results. It makes judicious use of risk comparisons, uses concrete examples and analogies without being manipulative, presents a representative portion of the whole truth, and seeks to empower its audience rather than to subject them to paternalistic control.
  • Finally, risk management puts it all together. Integrating risk assessment information, settled value principles expressed in risk perception and risk communication, it facilitates the collective decision as to safety, i.e., whether or not a given risk factor is acceptable to a social group.

What you will do ...

Decision Point

You are a registered, fully licensed engineer who works for GCE. You are called by the constructor, Havens Steel Company, and asked to approve "a design change from a single to a double hanger rod box beam connection….” Hanging a single rod from the ceiling and then bolting it to the box beams that support the walkways has created considerable construction problems. For example, is it really feasible to thread the entire 60 foot rod on which the walkways are to be hung? Is it not more feasible from a manufacturing perspective to bolt shorter rods to the walkway box beams from which the lover level walkways can be hung? For the sake of expediency and cost effectiveness, you are asked to sign off on this design change. What should you do?

Evaluate the following alternatives using the ethics tests, the code test, and a feasibility test

  • Sign off on the design changes. You can trust the judgment of Havens given their experience in construction of building of this type.
  • Refuse to sign off on this change. Instead, consult your colleagues and see if you can find a solution consistent with the original design for working around the construction difficulties raised by Havens.
  • Consult those responsible for the original design. Perhaps they had further specifications in mind that would solve Havens' difficulties but, for some reason, omitted them from the design specifications.


Put yourself into the position of those about to suffer impacts from your action. How does this action look from their point of view. If it looks as good from this perspective as from the agent perspective, then the action if fully reversible.


Which of the alternatives mentioned above produces the least harms? Which produces the most benefits? Which has the best benefit to harm ratio? Choose the harm-minimizing alternative.


Suppose you are to be publicly associated with the action you choose. Would you be comfortable with this? In other words, would you be comfortable with the public assessing your character and moral worth on the basis of this action? Suppose the action is responsible. Then you would, hopefully, be comfortable being known as a responsible person. Suppose, on the other hand, that the action under consideration treats some groups unjustly. Would you want to be judged as an unjust or biased person? Supposing the moral value of the action "rubs off" on you, would you still find it acceptable and worthy?

The Code Test has you look at an action in terms of its salience for four key engineering stakeholders: public, client, profession, and peer.

  • Engineer to Public. The key good here is public welfare. Does the alternative under consideration maintain or promote public welfare? Does it hold paramount the health, safety, and welfare of the public?
  • Engineer to Client. The key good here is maintaining faithful agency. Positively, this means that the action carries out engineering responsibilities with due care. Negatively, it means that your action avoids conflicts of interests and violations of confidentiality.
  • Engineer to Profession. If you object to a particular professional society, imagine an ideal professional community animated by the cardinal objectives and aspirations of engineers. Does your action uphold or promote the dignity, honor, and integrity of this ideal conception of professionalism?
  • Finally engineer to engineer. Does your action maintain or promote relations of collegiality and cooperation between fellow, practicing engineers?

An ideal is of no good unless it can be enacted in the real world which has constraints and limitations that frequently throw obstacles into the way of the realization of good actions. Three constraints or limitations stand out. Does your action depend on the availability or affordability of key resources? For example, is there enough money to realize your solution or is there a sufficient amount of time for carrying out your action. These constraints must be respected and pushed back through negotiation if possible. Second, does your action run head on into opposing individuals and interests? Does it resonate with the social or organizational context in which it must be realized? Finally, is it manufacturable or technically possible? Resource, technical, and interest constraints represent three possible sources of obstacles that could prevent the realization of your solution. How do you plan to work around or through these?

What did you learn?

Reflection Exercise

You have just finished practicing problem-solving by playing the role of a participant in the Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse Case. Petroski describes the plight of a designing engineer as having to look into the future "through a glass darkly." Given your experience, how difficult was it for the participating engineers to foresee the weakness of the walkway design? Should they have been able to recognize this design error and correct it before the construction was completed and the public exposed to a risky design?

Dramatic Rehearsal

Divide into a small group. Then divide further into two case participants, the Havens group confronted with a cumbersome design and GCI who was repsonsible for this cumbersome design. Construct a "What if" drama. What if the participants in the design had taken a different path and enacted a different narrative? Construct this "what if" drama and act out a scenario that would have avoided the Hyatt Regency Walkway Tragedy.


Hyatt Walkway Presentation

Media File: Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse.pptx

Hyatt Walkway Presentation for Spring 2011

Media File: Hyatt Regency Walkway Collapse-2.pptx

APPE 2011 Presentation

Media File: APPE_2011.pptx

Resources Used

  • Covello, V.T., Sandman, P.M. and Slovic, P. (1991) "Guidelines for Communicating Information About Chemical Risks Effectively and Responsibly," in Acceptable Evidence: 66-92.
  • Cranor, C.F. (1993) Regulating Toxic Substances: A Philosophy of Science and the Law. Oxford University Press: London.
  • Fingarette, H. (1971) Criminal Insanity. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA: 171.
  • Harris, C.E. (2008). The good engineer: Giving virtue its due in engineering ethics. Science and Engineering Ethics, 14(2), 152-164.
  • Mayo, D.G., Hollander, R.D., Editors. (1991) Acceptable Evidence: Science and Values in Risk Management. Oxford University Press: London.
  • Mayo, D.G. (1991) "Sociological Versus Metascientific Views of Risk Assessment," in Acceptable Evidence. Oxford University Press: London: 249-280.
  • Pfatteicher, S. (2000). "The Hyatt Horror": Failure and Responsibility in American Engineering. Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities. May 2000: 62-66.
  • Slovic, P. (1991) "Beyond Numbers: A Broader Perspective on Risk Perception and Risk Communication," in Acceptable Evidence: 48-65.
  • Perrow, C. (1984) Normal Accidents: Living with high-risk technologies. Basic Books, NY,NY.
  • Reason, J. (1990/1999) Human Error Cambridge University Press: London.
  • Sagoff, M. (1985) Risk-Benefit Analysis in Decisions Concerning Public Safety and Health. Kendall/Hunt: Dubuque, Iowa.
  • Sagoff, M. The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and the Environment. Cambridge University Press: London.
  • Sandel, M.J. (1982/1998) Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 2nd Ed. Cambridge University Press, London.
  • Shrader-Frechette. (1991) "Reductionist Approaches to Risk," in Acceptable Risk. 218-248.
  • Thompson, P.B., (1999) "The Ethics of Truth-Telling and the Problem of Risk." Science and Engineering Ethics 5(4): 489-510.
  • "Glossary" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 1/31/2006 6:57:46 PM National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Saturday, December 27, 2008 first item here
  • "Hyatt Regency Kansas City Walkway Collapse" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 11/24/2010 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Friday, December 17, 2010

EAC ToolKit Project

This module is a WORK-IN-PROGRESS; the author(s) may update the content as needed. Others are welcome to use this module or create a new derived module. You can COLLABORATE to improve this module by providing suggestions and/or feedback on your experiences with this module.

Please see the Creative Commons License regarding permission to reuse this material.

Funded by the National Science Foundation: "Collaborative Development of Ethics Across the Curriculum Resources and Sharing of Best Practices," NSF-SES-0551779

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