When bridges collapse, vessels sink, space rockets explode, planes crash, and buildings come down in violent clouds of dust, teams of engineers, safety inspectors, and multiple government agencies, descend upon the scene to begin piecing events together hoping to isolate the cause.
Engineering.com, a digital media publisher for designers and engineers, notes in relation to failures of the past, “engineering is a precise science." Attention to detail and the highest safety standards must be adhered to at all times. Perhaps the most important lesson for us all is not to consign these events to history but to make sure they continue to be recognized by tightened regulations. These lessons also serve as a reminder for people to speak up when necessary to avoid these mistakes being made again.”
Historically, the topic of ethics centered more on personal issues; personal relationships, personal finances, and other matters of navigating life. Ethics was not always a primary focus for some industries and businesses that work in the fields of engineering. As the feats and failures of engineering started garnering headlines, it became evident that a refocus on ethics needed to be front and center.
The Engineering Code of Ethics
The preamble to the Engineering Code of Ethics from The National Society of Professional Engineers states:
“Engineering is an important and learned profession. As members of this profession, engineers are expected to exhibit the highest standards of honesty and integrity. Engineering has a direct and vital impact on the quality of life for all people. Accordingly, the services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare. Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct.”
The Fundamental Principles and Fundamental Canons of the Engineering Code of Ethics are designed to guide the work of all engineers.
Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the engineering profession by:
- Using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare
- Being honest and impartial and serving with fidelity the public, their employers and clients
- Striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession
- Supporting the professional and technical societies of their disciplines
Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties by:
- Performing services only in areas of their competence
- Issuing public statements only in a subjective and truthful manner
- Acting in professional matters for each employer, or client, as faithful agents or trustees, and avoiding conflicts of interest
- Building their professional reputation on the merit of their services and not competing unfairly with others
- Acting in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession
- Continuing their professional development throughout their careers and providing opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision
The Engineer’s Obligation
William Marcy, Executive Director of the Murdough Center for Engineering Professionalism/National Institute for Engineering Ethics, advises his students and professional engineers to look at all angles when it comes to ethics. “It’s about looking past what people would know about and understanding what your obligation is,” he says. Marcy offers an example concerning a fastening attachment:
“Let’s say you project into the future what the consequences might be,” he says. “If an outside inspector said a certain fastening attachment isn’t at the level of quality required, who’s responsible for fixing this? Should it be the one who did it in 2001 even though the standards might have been different? If you put something in that no longer is up to code, is your company obligated to say something if that outside inspector was never involved and no one brought it up? Making an ethical decision is thinking about the lifecycle of a project or product or design, not just assuming everything is fine. What may be OK in 2001 may not be fine in 2013 because technology, policies, and design methods can all change.”
Successful engineering companies place a high value on ethical engineering management. They send the message, to all levels of their organization, that it is imperative to understand the moral values that should inform engineering practice and that the Code of Ethics for engineers is not only a collection of aspirational principles but a guide to directing sound engineering planning and implementation.