(Photo courtesy of Bigdig.com)

The deadly collapse of 10 tons of precast concrete ceiling panels in the I-90 connector tunnel in Boston clearly demonstrates that even a $14.6-billion project may end up being judged on the performance of a relative handful of bolts. But it also underscores the role that everyone  must play in making major projects safe.

Up until now, the Central Artery /Tunnel has been criticized mainly for its cost escalation and tunnel leaks, which can partially be explained, given the ambitious nature of the decade-long project. But the recent death of a woman passenger in a car rightfully brings the project under much harsher scrutiny.

From a conceptual and practical standpoint, the project is a great success. It reconfigured the major transportation arteries of a great American city and eliminated an elevated expressway system that was hideous by modern standards. By sending much of the city’s traffic underground, it has made Boston more livable and triggered billions of dollars of new commercial, residential and recreational development. Even more is to come.

Some would say that problems should be expected on any project of this magnitude. The cost escalation from $2.3 billion to $14.6 billion can be explained by an initial estimate that was based on an introductory version of the project that was politically motivated in order to get the job moving. And then came dramatic changes in scope that spread the project throughout the city.

The leaks that plagued one tunnel segment can be explained by difficult subterranean conditions and flawed construction methods. No one was hurt and the flaws were corrected.

But the hanger system failure involves an engineered system with manufactured components. There is no excuse for the collapse and a criminal investigation is under way.

The lesson that everyone on mega projects—from the top leaders to craft workers—should take away from this incident is that they all have a role to play in making complex projects safe. If something looks stupid or unsafe to the experienced eye, it probably is and there is an obligation to speak up. The safety obligation to the end user is the same that everyone has for their own personal safety. The life you save may be your own.