TORONTO – Doug Perovic loves his job, but he also wishes he didn’t have to do it. If he’s involved, it usually means something catastrophic has occurred.
The University of Toronto engineering professor has been involved in hundreds of investigations, including fatal incidents such as the Sunrise Propane explosion in 2008 and the stage collapse at a Radiohead concert in 2014.
Despite working in the field for 25 years, Perovic says forensic engineering is still in its infancy.
The professor will soon help grow the field by teaching a course now included in a new forensic engineering certificate program offered by the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering – one the university says is the first of its kind in Canada.
Perovic’s students, who are in their fourth year, will examine some of the high-profile cases their teacher has worked on.
Inside his downtown office, Perovic pulls a large two-piece valve from a shelf.
“You can see it fractured through here – this was once a single piece,” he says. “This burst open and caused a huge leak. As I tell the students, you’re given this, what do you do? Where do you start? Then I teach students how to investigate.”
Perovic says he plans to start his first class in January with a disturbing image of a car crash, including the people beheaded as a result.
“If you want to do this stuff, you’ll be looking at things like police photos,” he says.
Forensic engineering, which was recently formalized as a practice by the Professional Engineers of Ontario, is “an important field,” Perovic says.
“I want my students to learn that their duty as forensic engineers is not to whichever company hires you to investigate, but to the public to ensure we figure out what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
The three main areas that forensic engineers focus on are product liability, which is Perovic’s specialty, fire investigations and collision reconstruction.
The professor is frequently called in to investigate incidents after they spark lawsuits, he says. His clients might be manufacturers or insurance companies.
Following the Sunrise Propane explosion that left two dead, including an off-duty firefighter who suffered a fatal heart attack, Perovic spent two days poring over materials, he recalls.
A propane tank manufacturer had hired him to find out whether the giants tanks that blew up that day had in fact caused the explosion – a possibility Perovic ruled out through his research.
Finding out what happened is only the first step, however, the professor says.
“This is not all about post mortem analysis, this is also about making things better,” he says. “We learn from this and make better products, instruct the industry and make the codes better.”
One example is wire-embedded safety glass, a long-standing standard in Canada. Hundreds of injuries have been linked to it over the years, according to the Canadian General Standards Board, a federal agency.
The board recently removed wired glass as a designated standard for areas with foot traffic, and a new standard is in the works.
Perovic says he worked for years to get that type of glass out of the building code.
That ability to effect positive change is what drew Olivia Yalnizyan-Carson to the course last year.
Now she’s doing her master’s degree and trying to figure out why a particular hip implant keeps failing.
“The doctors couldn’t figure it out and it seems to be pretty widespread,” she says.
“We’re just looking into what kind of material factors are contributing to the failure – is it a design issue or a manufacturing issue? That’s what we’re going to figure out.”