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Investigating a Failure: The First Days in The Field

Dr. Luis R. Carney, 04/28/2019.

Every failure investigation or analysis is unique. A set of rules that applies to every case cannot be written. Nevertheless, the list below provides some guidance on the basic principles involved in evidence gathering and preservation in the field for the purposes of a more thorough failure investigation or analysis later.

Before starting anything, it is presumed that the substances, objects, machines, structures or locations in question have been rendered safe for handling or inspection. Ensure that the proper authorities have deemed them to be safe. If there is any doubt, the best advice is always: do not go near it and, especially, do not touch! In particular, stay away from fire, gases, fluids, fibers and anything that could constitute a bio-hazard. Check the applicable Materials Safety Data Sheets for items likely to be there.

Several industry standards such as ASTM E860 (Practice for Examining And Preparing Items That Are Or May Become Involved In Criminal or Civil Litigation), ASTM E1020 (Practice for Reporting Incidents that May Involve Criminal or Civil Litigation) and ASTM E1188 (Practice for Collection and Preservation of Information and Physical Items by a Technical Investigator) may be helpful to personnel that expect to be called at a moment’s notice for advice. My own tips based on years of experience are:

1. Get help from technically trained personnel as soon as possible after the failure. Evidence, supporting documentation and people tend to disperse quickly after an event.

2. While documenting a scene or device, use great care to minimize disturbing or altering the original condition of either. Changing small details can later become significant.

3. Take lots of pictures from different angles. If necessary, vary lighting conditions.

4. Supplement digital images with video.

5. Use extreme care in handling parts. Wear gloves appropriate for the job. Look out for sharp edges and burrs.  Do not mess with devices that may be hot, electrified, pressurized or spring loaded.  These may kill you.

6. Do not touch parts, specially fracture surfaces, with bare fingers. Touching with bare hands can lead to accelerated surface corrosion and the obliteration of important details.

7. Do not attempt to put fracture surfaces together. Doing so may lead to metal-to-metal contact and subsequent surface smearing at a microscopic scale.

8. Any parts with damage or fracture surfaces that are expected to be relevant should be protected from handling and transportation damage (impact, rubbing etc…). Small ones should be preserved in separate, clear and labeled “zip-lock” type plastic bags.  Protecting things in bubble wrap is a generally good idea.

9. Air dry any parts that are going to be bagged or cannot be taken to a laboratory quickly. Storing parts under conditions where they cannot dry is likely to lead to accelerated corrosion and obliteration of important information.  If temporary storage is required, an air conditioned room is best.  The low humidity will provide some protection against surface corrosion.

10. Bag Labels should include: name of part, where recovered, associated pictures, date, and appropriate warnings.

11. Write down to the best of your ability the known facts and circumstances surrounding the failure. Background information will be useful to the analyst in determining which failure scenarios and mechanisms are possible and which are not.

12. Identify witnesses and their observations before, during and after the failure.

13. Identify manufacturers, part numbers and serial numbers for items in question.

14. Identify hours of operation.

15. Identify place and time since last maintenance, rework or overhaul.

16. Obtain drawings and manufacturing specifications for failed parts or systems.

17. Obtain and preserve maintenance records and manuals.

18.  Share all available information with your technical adviser as soon as possible and begin to formulate an inspection plan.  Determine what else might be necessary for a complete evaluation.

19.  Consider retaining Southeastern Metallurgy to do these things for you.  We have over 30 years experience performing these functions in many high profile cases.  We will be happy to discuss what needs to be done as soon as you are.

Dr. Luis R. Carney, P.E.


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