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Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

  • 1.  Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-20-2017 12:26 PM
    Edited by Veronique Nguyen 01-20-2017 12:28 PM
    Dear ASCE Members,

    I hope to stimulate conversations on ethical dilemmas that engineers may face. So, please consider the following engineering ethical dilemma and contribute to the advancement of our profession by providing your thoughts on the situation Rachel faces. Thank you.

    Best Regards,

    Rachel has been working as an EIT for a couple of years with a consulting firm. She is commonly instructed to create some specific design components for various projects. Some of the aspects she designs <g class="gr_ gr_62 gr-alert gr_gramm gr_run_anim Grammar multiReplace" id="62" data-gr-id="62">are</g> small contributions to the overall plans, but in some <g class="gr_ gr_63 gr-alert gr_gramm gr_run_anim Punctuation only-ins replaceWithoutSep" id="63" data-gr-id="63">cases</g> Rachel has created all of the design aspects on many pages of plans. She has inquired about the review process and has been informed the review process is functioning fine. Rachel doesn't receive any comments nor changes to her design work from the P.E. stamping the plans. It is Rachel's opinion that her design work is not being adequately reviewed and this makes her worried. She has little design experience, she isn't a P.E., and she is starting to lose sleep over worrying about if her design work is correct.

    Steve Starrett Ph.D., P.E., D.WRE, F.EWRI, F.ASCE
    Kansas State University
    Westmoreland KS


  • 2.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-20-2017 05:11 PM
    The professional licensing laws in most states require that for an engineer to stamp the work of others who are not licensed, they must be working under their "direct charge."  The definition of direct charge can be ambiguous, but it should certainly include supervision, and review of the work performed by the unlicensed individual.  Most firms, especially those who are members of ASCE and who carry professional liability policies, have in place a review process whereby designs are reviewed by another individual - preferably someone licensed - and the returned to the designer for correction, or at least some acknowledgment on each page that a review has occurred.  If a liability occurs with one of Rachel's designs, it would be the licensed professional who would be found responsible, and their responsibility would be double-fold if they stamped designs without reviewing them.  I would suggest that Rachel promote within her firm a design review process - it would probably enhance her career and position within the firm.

    Darrell Hansen P.E., S.E., M.ASCE
    [D. George Hansen Inc Consulting Structural Engineers]
    Salt Lake City UT

  • 3.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-30-2017 02:26 PM
    Edited by Veronique Nguyen 01-30-2017 02:25 PM

    I agree with Donald Baker about his statement and I quote;

    Communication is always a good place to start

    I mentored and coached different professionals about being an effective leaders and effective communicator. 

    Let me suggest about our attitude in a two-way communication. Attitude is a manner of thinking, feeling, or behaving that reflects a state of mind or disposition. Attitudes are more difficult to assess than knowledge and skills, yet attitudes affect behavior, which certainly can be measured. 

    Below is an excerpt of the attached article (Attitude of Professional Civil Engineer) that I had submitted to our department newsletter. 

    “An exhaustive list of appropriate attitudes would be difficult to compile. In the present case, the significant attitudes are those that support the effective practice of civil engineering. A partial list of those attitudes might include commitment, confidence, and consideration of others, curiosity, fairness, high expectations, honesty, integrity, intuition, good judgment, optimism, persistence, positive, respect, self-esteem, sensitivity, thoughtfulness, thoroughness and tolerance.” 

    We are all professional engineers except most of us are licensed professional engineer or licensed/registered civil engineer. It does not matter whether you are licensed or not, we need to communicate better and have a positive attitude in our career or profession.

    Therefore, positive attitude is one of the good moral values of our human conduct in our profession.

    Elias A Busuego Jr PhD DTM A.M.ASCE
    Public Works Engineer
    San Bernardino CA

  • 4.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-21-2017 09:54 AM
    While Rachel is not yet a professional engineer it's obvious she's on track to becoming one. Since the question went to the ethics of the situation, I suggest that, while she is not the legal point of responsibility for any design yet, she does face an ethics issue if she knows or suspects that her designs are going out unreviewed and unchecked. Heck, I'd worry if I thought my own designs got no review, and I have been licensed well over 30 years. I like the suggestion that she try to drive a new QA/QC program for her company. In a smaller organization, young EITs have a clear opportunity to influence management and make a career path for themselves. In a larger organization, this may not be a real option for Rachel (we are not told how large her firm may be) and she may be faced with looking for a new position. Personally I wouldn't stay where she is unless I felt I could effect some change in a timely manner. She's not growing or being mentored, she's in a situation where her supervisor may be behaving unethically, and she's not sleeping. Get out of Dodge!

    David McGlasson P.E., L.S., M.ASCE
    Principal Engineer
    Wilder ID


  • 5.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-21-2017 03:07 PM
    As a Professor of Civil Engineering, a PE and a BCEE, Rachel's concern is real.  The company is taking a real chance that could involve public safety.  That is the real concern.  I would recommend she talk to her immediate supervisor and request that he/she take a look at the work; if they are too busy, ask someone else with some experience to look it over.  You don't have to check every number in the calculation, but rather look at the results. Anyone with experience would know if something didn't look right.  If all else fails, there is always HR -- assuming the company is big enough to have such a department.

    The company principals should be alarmed that this is going on. They are on the edge of disaster. It is their pocketbook and their license that will be affected.  If it is proven to b gross negligence, then the E&O insurance may not cover them.   Most companies that I have worked for have a QA/QC policy or manual and put  form in the file signed by the experienced individual who reviewed the work. 

    Joseph Reichenberger P.E., F.ASCE, BCEE
    Professor of Civil Engineering
    Monterey Park CA

  • 6.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-21-2017 06:11 PM
    With the facts available, the ethics issue being discussed presents a serious liability both for the firm, and possibly even for Rachel. The firm is liable if their licensed employee is signing/sealing plans without following in general appropriate engineering/surveying standards and practices, not following the appropriate QA/QC policies of the firm, and may be endangering the public. The licensed engineer's practice violates many aspects of the National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics (Code of Ethics) and National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying Rules of Professional Conduct (http://ncees.org/wp-content/uploads/Model-Rules-2016.pdf), which I will not list. However, considering this is of particular concern to Rachel, it is possible she could also be liable if, as stated under Subsection A, Article 8 of the Model Rules, Section 240.15, Rules of Professional Conduct, she did not report her suspicion that her designs were not being reviewed properly:

    A.8. Licensees who have knowledge or reason to believe that any person or firm has violated any rules or laws applying to the practice of engineering or surveying shall report it to the board, may report it to appropriate legal authorities, and shall cooperate with the board and
    those authorities as may be requested.

    Also, if I remember correctly from the post, it was mentioned in the case that Rachel designed aspects of the plan that might have gone beyond her knowledge and experience. This would violate Subsection B, Article 1 of the Model Rules, Section 240.15, Rules of Professional Conduct:

    B.1. Licensees shall undertake assignments only when qualified by education or experience in the specific technical fields of engineering or surveying involved.

    Great discussion topic, and best of luck to Rachel in dealing with this very challenging ethics issue.

    Jonathan Kimchi, EI, A.M.ASCE

  • 7.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-22-2017 10:39 AM
    As a P.E. who now teaches ethics to engineering students, I find this case study fascinating.  It is exactly the kind of ambiguous situation young engineers may find themselves in.  On the one hand, this may be an egregious violation of the Code of Ethics, and if Rachel has evidence of this, and there is significant risk to the public she can and should report it to ASCE and/or other authorities.  On the other hand, it may simply be a matter of a non-responsive P.E. (ie Rachel's work may be fine but the P.E. reviewing the plans is not telling her).  In this case, I think the previous suggestions to raise the issue with her supervisor are the way to go.  If couched in terms that reflect her desire to learn, she will likely get a positive response.  Showing this kind of initiative can greatly help advance her career.  If she does not get a positive response fro her immediate supervisor, she could diplomatically take this up the chain of command.  If she gets resistance from upper management as well, I think she should be looking for a new employer.  Any company that is not interested in mentoring young engineers is not worth staying with.

    Robert Ryan Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE
    Associate Professor
    Temple University
    Philadelphia PA

  • 8.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-22-2017 05:26 PM
    Rachel is just fine!  First off, if there is a problem later on, the P.E. and the firm will bear the heat, not any of the technicians including Rachel which technically she is.  But, the firm must be well connected with the State in order to get all that work, so they won't suffer unless a major catastrophe occurs.  Rachel will still be exempt from blame.  I know because as a retired State employee, I saw this all the time.  My job was to review plans submitted by the Districts, some by our personnel, some by consultants.  When I called any P.E. to discuss errors I had found in the traffic signal design, the P.E. usually claimed ignorance passed to the EIT or technician who had designed the intersection.  I saw more plan stamping than any ethics professor would believe exists, but as a State employee, I was forbidden by my superiors from reporting ANYONE or ANY FIRM to the State Board.  One time I caught a submittal that had not only plagiarized a design of mine but had also badly misused it; the P.E. explained to me that it wasn't his fault because he knew nothing about electrical distribution.  My Section Director forbade me from complaining to the State Board as a State employee.  Rachel should be grateful for the exciting work experience which WILL carry on her resume.  But, if she, a non-P.E., persists in pushing her firm to correct it's ethics, she could find herself an unemployed but ethical E.I.T.

    James Justin Mercier P.E., M.ASCE
    Austin TX
    (512) 442-4016

  • 9.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-23-2017 12:27 PM
    In reply to Mr James Justin Mercier's comments, I hope that your comments were tongue-in-cheek.  Otherwise, may I suggest that it is time for you to look for another job and start blowing some whistles?  Our obligation to public safety exceeds any obligation to our supervisor or employer or desire to keep our paychecks coming in.  

    Of course, I know that this is much easier to say if you have lots of other job offers and could make an easy transition.  When alternative employment is not readily available and when the engineering community is small enough that a large player can effectively blacklist a whistle blower, the employer effectively exercises a nearly-tyrannical power over its professional engineers, which can substantially degrade the ethics of our profession, in ways similar to the manner you describe.

    Has the ASCE ever established a fund to assist its members when they endure a temporary job loss due to blowing an ethics whistle?  It would give PE employees a degree of independence over their employers, and would, I feel, have more substantial impact on improving ethics in our profession than all of the ethics-training courses combined.  Once established, the fund could be replenished with the proceeds from lawsuits that are brought to a successful conclusion.

    James Tyson P.E., M.ASCE
    Mercerville NJ

  • 10.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-23-2017 11:37 AM
    I concur with Dr. Ryan.  Rachel should start that dialogue with her supervisor and move up the chain of command as necessary.  This does not need to be and should not be an adversarial situation.  Communication is always a good place to start.

    As for Rachel's liability, I don't believe that she has any here. Her supervisor clearly carries that responsibility.  With that said, a tactful conversation may help improve here company's processes and save some future headaches.

    Donald Baker P.E., D.WRE, M.ASCE
    Principal & Owner
    Water Resources Solutions, LLC
    8800 Linden Drive
    Prairie Village, Kansas 66207

  • 11.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-22-2017 05:26 PM
    In Maryland, it is necessary for the the PE to include the following near the area where the PE stamp is placed, when signing and sealing plans, specifications, drawings, reports, or other documents:

    Professional Certification. I hereby certify that these documents
    were prepared or approved by me, and that I am a duly licensed
    professional engineer under the laws of the State of Maryland.
    License No. ____________, Expiration Date: _______________

     This additional certification is intended to promote awareness among Maryland professional engineers regarding the status of their professional engineers' license and reduce the occurrences of practicing with an expired license.

    By signing the additional certification puts the PE at risk if there is no review of the document being signed.   

    Benjamin Allen P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer,
    Silver Spring MD 20904

  • 12.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-23-2017 11:39 AM
    I have found this  discussion very interesting and all the advice given has merit based on the assumptions within each response.  However, from the information provided we do not know how the level of work she performed fit into the final deliverable requiring final PE assurances and seal—if required. Nor do we know the basis for her concerns about her own work.  She has been with the firm for 2 years and apparently her work  has been satisfactory enough so far for her to be assigned the project in the first place and she may have discharged her responsibilities sufficiently enough without needing to send it back to her (or so poorly, it was handed off to someone else).  I am not aware of any obligation of the firm to apprise Rachel of review findings, but it is curious she does not know,  since as mentioned in previous comments, constructive feedback is an invaluable mentoring aspect of professional development that benefits employee and employer alike.  The bottom line is, I think:  If in fact the final documents relied upon Rachel's work and were sealed and submitted  verifiably without sufficient QA/QC and PE review,  the firm is not following standard engineering practices and ethics.  While the firm is taking a hugh risk, it is my understanding that Rachel would not be held liable unless unusual circumstances prevail (this may depend on individual State rules). 

    However,  this not does not resolve  Rachel's dilemma as I understand it, especially  since it may be affecting her health and job performance. I think the question is: what  is the appropriate action for Rachel  to take to determine if her suspicions that standard engineering review practices were not duly followed?    The easy response for all difficult questions  is the catch-all refrain—it depends. It depend on the factors offered in the comments  including the size of company (or agency), ramification vs  the price of burning career bridges, goals  within the company, career plan.  Perhaps she might be better served to just ask her supervisor for feedback regarding her performance on the project which he/she should respect and in so doing should learn whether or not her suspicions are well founded without having to level  any allegations.  If this does not adequately address her concerns, it could come down to weighing the more drastic options discussed, but an old adage comes to mind—pick your battles cautiously.  

    Sorry for length, hope this is of value, 


    Stephen Forbes Ph.D., P.E., P.G., M.ASCE
    San Antonio TX

  • 13.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-24-2017 11:08 AM

    Since I am licensed and practiced in Maryland, I find I have to agree with Ben Allen. :-)

    That said, I also agree with Dr. Ryan's assessment, but would respectfully add one point. Rachel has an obligation to her firm, to make them aware of her concerns, so that they can decide if there is any firm liability.

    In the scenario set forth, it seems to me there is a more important issue to Rachel than the ethical dilemma. We spend more waking hours in our place of employment than anywhere else. If the workplace is causing stress to the extent that the individual is experiencing sleep or other health issues, that is an indication the employee either needs to move to a different position within the firm, or move to a different firm.

    David E. Booth, Jr. P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer
    Westminster MD

  • 14.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-26-2017 01:49 PM
    First, thank you to all of the comments as it shows a great deal of concern for young engineers and hit all the right buttons for me.  I think that young female engineers should get as much constructive review and mentoring as possible. Statistics of young female engineers leaving the profession early on due to disparate treatment, and the "good old boy syndrome" still hanging on in some firms is alarming. It is hard to keep a level of enthusiasm about the field when this occurs.   Hopefully, the reviewing/approving/stamping engineer's silence is not an example.

    In this case of lack of oversight, she may simply need to inquire of the approving engineer if her work is absolutely perfect, or if he/she can provide any advice on improvements.  This approach without raising the ethics specter may be enough to make the approving engineer take notice (and if this has been going on for 2 years, they are probably oblivious).  If the approving engineer does not take the time, Rachel could ask if they would mind if she asked another engineer, perhaps a P.E. lower than her boss with some specialization to check her work before it makes it to him/her for review. Lastly, if her lost sleep is due to her wanting confirmation she did certain calcs or design drawings correctly, she should ask a peer EIT with perhaps a little more experience for review. The camaraderie is beneficial. In general, she should expect a level of review that makes her feel comfortable enough to sleep at night, provides security in her application of her knowledge and education, and satisfies the rules.  Of course, document the results if possible.  My 2 cents.

    Edward Peacock P.E., M.ASCE
    City of Austin
    Austin TX

  • 15.  RE: Engineering Ethics. Case Study 1

    Posted 01-27-2017 09:59 AM

    Dear all,

    May I begin by expressing my humble apology for not having read the actual case itself as it was not available to me. But reading the brief paragraph by Steve Starrett, I feel the urge to say this is not an ethical issue; it is more of a specific company’s system failure. Rachel must not worry or lose sleep over what she has carried out within her experience and the responsibilities she has been trusted in.

    To my experience, Rachel’s case is not unique. It is just another tiny stroke of the bell wanting to alarm us. Therefore, here I would like to replace the name of the Rachel to “The Engineer” as there are thousands of Rachel, Andy or Brian are out there in similar circumstances.

    We need to remember that engineers are not made over a night. Like babies born to this world, Engineers to our engineering world need to be nurtured and guided until they become the person we would need them to be and fit into the roles and responsibilities they ought to be trusted in.

    Whatever task the Engineer is carrying out, a simple calculation, complex analysis or writing up specifications, all need to be checked by another knowledgeable person in the same discipline to ensure the quality of the works. And, if I may add, it is the responsibility of the project managers to facilitate for that to happen. Success or failure of a task is a shared responsibility from the top to the bottom of the team. It is not for the Engineer to go around to ask am I or is my work “absolutely perfect”? To start with, in my opinion, there is no such thing as “absolutely perfect” in our engineering world; there would be no room for improvement otherwise. We all strive to improve our world through innovations and improvement of our methods of design and construction and that is happening through the challenging tasks we are facing every day. Those challenging tasks are gauging the gaps still needs to be filled in; hence we can look at “perfect” as an infinite we may never reach.

    As for “Ethics”, we must not mistake a Technical Shortfall and System Failure with Ethics. Engineers must not compromise the Engineering Profession and the responsibilities they have been trusted in, by means of misconduct and unacceptable behaviour for personal gains. Having said that, “Leadership”, “Teamwork” and “Effective Communications” plays a significant role in preventing Ethical Misconduct, Technical Shortfall and System Failure.

    I wish I could have more time to further discuss this matter.

    Khatab Sabir

    Maritime and Civil Engineer

    BEng.(Hons), CEng., MICE, CMarEng., FIMarEST, FRINA, Aff.M.ASCE

    United Kingdom

    Khatab Sabir
    BEng.(Hons), CEng., MICE, CMarEng., FIMarEST, FRINA, Aff.M.ASCE
    Principal Maritime Civil Engineer
    United Kingdom