What Does a Forensic Engineer Do? (With Job Requirements)
By Indeed Editorial Team
Published May 7, 2022
The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.
Forensic engineers provide an essential role in identifying the cause when materials, components, and structures fail. Unlike many other types of engineers, forensic engineers specialize in working backwards from effect to cause, looking at damaged or destroyed creations and determining the source of failure. Understanding this unique engineering speciality can help you decide whether this is the right path for you. In this article, we discuss what a forensic engineer does, discuss the kind of organizations that use these engineers' services, and review the general requirements to enter this career path.
What does a forensic engineer do?
You may be wondering, "What does a forensic engineer do?". Forensic engineers investigate failures of design. They may have very different tasks. For example, forensic engineers may investigate a small issue like a water pump breaking, or a catastrophe, such as a dam break. Here's a list of their typical duties:
One of a forensic engineer's most vital duties is evidence collection and working independently or with a team to analyze this evidence. Like other forensic experts, they take special care to help prevent damaging the evidence, allowing the engineer to have as much useful information as possible. Forensic engineers often work with incomplete information, as many things can destroy useful evidence before the engineer arrives. For example, fires can hide the cause of failures, as can disaster response teams moving and otherwise disrupting a scene to save lives or prevent further damage.
The more meaningful the evidence a forensic engineer can collect, the more accurate their analysis. A limitation is that companies rarely invest enough resources to conduct a completely comprehensive investigation. Extremely important investigations, such as failures with major structures, often receive special time and attention. Less significant failures likely have a time and resource limit. Useful evidence varies widely, depending on the failure being investigated, but can include the materials used, part failure, adherence to design documents, and apparent regulation breaches.
Talking to witnesses
Unless there's video evidence, witness testimony is one of the most useful ways to more fully understand the events leading to a failure. Forensic engineers may talk to witnesses who saw the failure as it occurred and those who worked in the area or took part in emergency response efforts. This can help engineers gather evidence that may no longer physically exist, such as investigating signs of a problem before failure.
One factor that accompanies gathering witness testimony is understanding that the information is likely to be incomplete and flawed. Witnesses may have biases that change the information conveyed and they might also misremember events. Despite this, witness testimony remains a useful tool to confirm what physical evidence may already suggest or to estimate events for which no physical evidence exists. Many witness accounts suggesting the same facts also usually mean the likelihood they are truthful is higher. Conflicting accounts suggest at least one witness may have misremembered events or even is intentionally misleading investigators.
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Once the forensic engineers collect evidence, they analyze it to derive conclusions about the causes of a failure. The goal is to establish if anyone may be liable. They may also check for patent infringement or make conclusions about how designers may prevent or resist the same failure from occurring in the future. This analysis is important, as it can help prevent future disasters, lead to more efficient design, and deem the right parties legally culpable for misconduct.
Not all analyses can produce fully actionable results, even performed correctly. Often, the collected evidence may only suggest a likely cause of a failure, rather than completely confirm or deny a given hypothesis. Forensic engineers also provide their employer and clients with an honest assessment of the possibilities, concluded by the evidence collected by them and their team. If this occurs, an engineer may also suggest ways to gather more evidence or perform certain tests to better identify the cause of a failure.
Working with other forensics experts
Forensic engineers often work in teams, especially on large-scale projects, such as building collapses. This team may include additional forensic engineers, other forensic specialists, and potentially even law enforcement or other government officials. Some teams may include dozens or even hundreds of members, as may be the case when investigating catastrophes that caused significant, expansive damage.
A large part of working with teams is effective communication. This helps a team remain efficient and ensures the experts on the team don't overlook critical information. While the members of a forensic engineer's team are often knowledgeable, they also may not all be experts in the field of engineering. This means a forensic engineer communicates complex engineering concepts in ways others can understand and execute.
Writing and presenting reports
Whether working on a team or alone, forensic engineers write reports for the organization they work for and relevant clients. For longer projects, the engineer may write multiple reports as they learn more about the failure. A client may also want an engineer's immediate impressions and then follow-up as they confirm or deny their initial assumptions. Sometimes, an engineer may have the additional task of presenting the report to a group and answering their questions.
Much like when working on a team, an important element of writing and presenting reports is providing information in an actionable form. An engineer may interact with people of varying specialties and experience levels. One part of this duty is adjusting both oral and written reports so those listening or reading meaningfully learn from it. Sometimes, forensic engineers who adhere to these reports may also have particular legal or organizational formatting requirements to follow.
Providing expert testimony
Often, a forensic engineer's end goal is to provide expert testimony in criminal and civil cases. Their testimony may help prove or disprove whether an organization or individual is at fault for a failure. While the format may differ, they can serve a similar role during arbitrations or for internal investigations.
For example, a testimony can result in people going to prison or having to pay thousands of dollars. Expert testimony can guide a jury and judge's conclusions, as well as that of law enforcement and internal investigators. Forensic experts have an ethical duty to be diligent in how they present testimony and to do their best to remain impartial. The goal of a forensic engineer when providing testimony is accuracy and honesty, paying close attention to what they establish as fact and what is speculation.
Who uses the services of forensic engineers?
One of the most common clients of forensic engineers is law firms, which use expert testimony to prove or disprove the culpability of the parties connected to the failure. Some clients, such as insurance companies, may have a focus on whether the law and their contract require a payout. Builders, contractors, and government investigators may have a greater focus on safety and avoiding similar failures in the future.
Forensic engineer requirements
Here's a list of requirements needed to become a forensic engineer:
Most companies desire applicants that have at least a bachelor's degree in a relevant engineering field. This helps ensure the engineer can safely and proficiently perform their duties. A forensic engineer may perform many of their duties alone. A degree helps a company know the engineer is knowledgeable in the basics of their job. This career path includes duties that are often focused on science and mathematics, two fields that are difficult to learn.
Training and experience
Many employers look for candidates to have a year or more experience in an engineering career related to the duties of a forensic engineering position. While the duties of a different civil, structural, or mechanical engineering position may differ from the forensic position, many of the skills developed can transfer to a new career. The candidate who can demonstrate experience working both independently and in groups may have a greater chance of getting hired.
Forensic engineers may legally require certification to perform their duties. The specifics of their certification can vary based on their speciality and local law. Many companies also look for candidates who have membership in a reputable engineering organization.
Forensic engineers benefit from an honest personality and the ability to observe sometimes tragic scenes from an analytical perspective. Resistance to emotional fatigue is highly beneficial, as is the ability to shift between an independent- and team-oriented role on short notice. Forensic engineers also benefit from the ability to keep track of many pieces of information at once, helping them reach accurate conclusions.
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