Engineering Ethics… Is There Ever A Question?

May 11, 2009 at 8:21 pm 9 comments

By Carol Metzner
President, The Metzner Group, LLC and
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC home of

Several studies conducted across the world suggest that the majority of engineering failures can be traced to a deficiency in engineering ethics. Specifically, someone was dishonest in their business dealings as they cut corners to save a dollar or keep a project on schedule. Perhaps they evaluated a situation that they were not competent to assess. In either case a failure occurs and an engineer’s ethics are called into question.  Is there ever a grey area when pondering ethics in engineering?

In 1995 thirty-five faculty from across the US and eight undergraduate fellows, gathered to develop engineering ethics resource material across engineering disciplines.  Numerical and ethical problems were developed with the support of the National Science Foundation.  These materials have made their way into many engineering ethics courses.  As I reviewed the civil engineering problems,  I, a non engineer, paused trying to think how to answer the ethical issues. For example, in one scenerio, a new female PE, is sent to a construction site to oversee the construction of her first sealed design (a parking garage).  After a day of heckling, whistling and additional lack of respect from the construction team on site, she returned to her civil engineering office and sought her colleagues/supervisors responses to issues she had confronted.  Getting their input she returned for day two.  Concrete is poured and a delay ensues. She confronts the construction supervisor and advised him that if a delay continues, then the poured concrete will need to be removed to avoid a structurally unsound joint.  The construction supervisor advises her that her inexperience and lack of construction knowledge leaves her with inadequate knowledge to make an accurate assessment in this case. He assures her that the joint will be sound and she is forced to make a decision to continue or place the project on delay. Under pressure she backs down. Guess what happens? Six months later a crack develops where the cold joint was and two years later an earthquake collapses that part of the garage severaly injuring people. The young PE and her company are found liable.

Some good ethical questions come out of this tragedy:  When do you let a new engineer go to a site alone?  There has to be a first time at some point. When she returned after the first day describing the adverse working conditions, should she had been sent back out alone? Should the contractor be held liable also? 

On the CivilEngineeringCentral Group on LINKEDIN, one member commented “if one has been in the engineering industry long enough, properly resolving ethical ambiguities are inevitable.” He so eloquently continues that when confronted he makes an “attempt to resolve any ethical dilemma through thoughtful deliberation first (never acting impulsively), then by calling my local PE Board for advice, who are exceptionally helpful, then finally as difficult as it might be, by confronting those who are central to the dilemma to offer an opportunity to arrive at an acceptable resolution prior to moving forward with reporting a transgression that might have crossed the line.”

The majority of us have an internal compass that moves when we are off center.  When something doesn’t feel right we know it in our gut.  We need to trust our instincts, talk with our mentors and our colleagues and make the good solid ethical choices.  As ASCE so plainly states:   Ethics is a cornerstone of civil engineering practice.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Americaneer  |  May 24, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    1. Unacceptable behavior by the construction staff. The senior company staff should have taken steps to immediately address this before the junior engineer went out to the site again. This was a special case, the junior engineer was a female.

    2. The senior company staff should have taken steps to correct the issues related to the concrete pouring. If they chose not to take the necessary steps they should have understood that they could be liable. The company staff may have chosen to play the odds and their bet was wrong. If they took the necessary steps and the contractor ignored their instructions, then the company may not be liable.

  • 2. John Poole  |  May 23, 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Whether or not this story is true, it is still a good example of the intimidation that does go on at construction sites. In this case, the contractor should be held liable for intimidating the engineering, however the contractor would deny intimidation and they would get in a he said/she said thing. You could never prove it.

  • 3. Robert Mote  |  May 22, 2009 at 1:10 am

    I really liked the considered reponses from Sidney and wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. And would happily subscribe to it.

    Unfortunately, our profession cannot be reduced to a one size fits all statement though. I am far removed of the world of a small consultant bidding for work or even social responsibilities in natural resources development aka oil and gas.

    Are we blurring the lines between social and environmental ethics? I quit my job because I did not want to be involved or trapped in nuclear engineering (and environmental concerns was not an issue 20 years ago) so I did more degrees and still became an oil and gas structural engineer instead. No technology is perfect, but how can we measure our responsibility to society or our community? Today someone could accuse me of the same lack of conscience, I have already suffered, again!

    I agree with the sentiment but good ethics as a lifestyle is a myth.

  • 4. Sidney  |  May 21, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Good ethics carries a responsibility to look out for the good of the community in which we live. We must ask ourselves, how will my actions affect my community? Too often, the question is, how will my actions affect my pocketbook? That is not an enthical question.

    I don’t think the ethics of the young engineer who designed the garage were the real issue. Her experience and confidence in her ability were one issue. The poor supervision by her supervisors was another issue. And the poor ethics of the site superintendent was the third.

    Too often we forget that the P.E. at the end of someone’s name really only indicates that person has met the minimum requirements of the state licensing board. It does not guarantee experience, good sense, or the ability to deal with the difficult issues or people that so often arise in our industry.

    As an industry, we need to make sure our young engineers, as well as other young people in the industry, are taught the responsibility that comes with living and working in a community. Good ethics is a lifestyle, not an option to be used as we consider it politic.

  • 5. David Perrings  |  May 21, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    THe following is a web site from my alma mater (RHIT) that gives a link to a database of case studies.

    David Perrings

  • 6. Cynthia  |  May 19, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    How is the example an ethics problem? Liability is not an ethics issue, it is a legal issue, so I agree with Mr. Perrings that the appropriate contact should be the error and omissions insurance provider, not an ethics board. It isn’t clear in the hypothetical for whom she works. And I agree with mottag that it is extremely rare for an individual to be held liable under such a scenario. She would have to have done something entirely out of the scope of her job or done something so egregious that her employer should not be held responsible for her work.

    Is the ethics problem whether she had the skills to do the job, and if not, who was responsible for monitoring her work? That would be an ethics problem – if she, as a PE, put the public health and safety at risk, that is an ethics issue. Is her license at risk? Sounds like some additional facts are missing.

  • 7. motagg  |  May 17, 2009 at 1:21 am

    In over 25 years of Oil and Gas, ethics has never come up. We are a huge team with no one person personally liable. I might spend some of my time scooping up someone else’s problems but that is normal. We are required to be competent and qualified. It does indeed read like a textbook example than a real life situation. Sure if I did my neighbour’s garage I am liable in the eyes of the law. I would never touch it anyway; they couldn’t pay me enough to predict all the known unknown, known knowns and unknown knowns etc.

    Certainly, in Canada I find it strange the engineers lack interest in working on site and the construction teams do not welcome engineers into their ranks. This is due to the ethics line. Construction wants to get on with it like coal miners and engineers want to examine everything carefully like dentists. Big clash of cultures.

    Elsewhere engineers find site work is mandatory and they learn to support the team. The ethics issues get raised to the team level.

  • 8. tcs  |  May 16, 2009 at 1:51 am

    Ethic is someting subjecttive and strongly bond to each different culture or belief. Its always turn up gray and fail when we put the ethic issue in black or white standpoint. It may be the next horizon of fuzzy logic management studies.

    Structural failure is an issue of objective- poor supervison, underdesign etc which fall under series of logical events leading to the financial or life casatrophies.

    The whole failure’s of structure may trace from the cause and effect in black or white before it turn gray when we question who is going to responsible.

  • 9. David Perrings, PE  |  May 14, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    I read the blog and then I read the parking garage account in the “civil engineering problems” and the whole story is just not believable to me. It reads like a classroom assignment from someone who has never been on a construction site. From the description given the construction site was out of control making it impossible for the engineer to carry out her duties. The only course of action that makes sense to me was for the engineer to go back to her office meet with her supervisors and the building owner in order to re-establish order on the site. Only after order has been restored on-site and only then should the engineer proceed with her duties and an engineer. After order has been re-establish on-site should the engineer proceed with her professional duties as an engineer. Also in 30 years of engineering practice I have never know anyone to call the “PE Board” for advice on this type of problem. E&O Insurance provider would make more since.
    David Perrings. PE


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