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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