Forensic engineers are engineers responsible for determining how accidents occurred or how a particular device failed. A kind of detective, forensic engineers will often inspect evidence drawn from the site of the failure to piece together the sequence of events that led up to it. The duties of forensic engineers vary, with some concentrating in specific fields, such as automobiles or civil engineering, but there are a number of tasks common to most positions within the profession.
The first task of a forensic engineer summoned to the scene of a failure with be to identify the precise nature of the failure. In some cases, this will be obvious. For instance, in the case of a plane crash, the failure is the plane's crashing. But in other cases, such as a forensic engineer called to inspect a defective building, the damage may be more subtle.
Once the failure has been identified, the forensic engineer must then collect all relevant evidence to determine its precise cause. This can include physical evidence from the scene as well as witness testimony regarding the events leading up to the failure.
Once the engineer has collected the physical evidence, he will then use the evidence to form various preliminary hypotheses as to the failure's cause. These guesses will be refined, modified and eliminated as the engineer's research continues.
The forensic engineer will often subject much of the physical evidence to a variety of tests to gain a better understanding of the incident. This can include tests to examine the composition of material found at the scene or to examine the mechanical health of a machine. For example, a forensic engineer examining the collapse of a building may test physical evidence for explosive residue or test steel in the building's structure to identify stresses it underwent during the incident.
Once the forensic engineer has gathered all his evidence and performed all necessary tests, she will then analyze the results and offer a conclusion as to the likely cause of the failure. The conclusion may not always be definite, but will often include the probability of various scenarios. The conclusions will usually be laid out in a report in which the findings are described in both technical and lay terms.
In certain cases, the forensic engineer will also provide testimony in a courtroom as to the likely cause of the failure. This can be particularly important in court cases in which parties disagree over who is responsible for the failure, a determination that generally hinges on the cause of the failure.