Engineering Ethics

Joseph Carson (73530.2350@CompuServe.COM)
15 Mar 97 16:31:53 EST

A producer for 60 Minutes, Steve McCarthy, emailed me yesterday about my
stand for the "Code of Ethics for Engineers" in the Department of Energy
yesterday. Nothing is wasted in God's economy, subtle as snakes, innocent
as doves.

The following is the lead story and editorial in this month's Engineering



[Image] Is PE License a Boon to Ethics in Industry?

By Elizabeth Kane, Staff Writer

[Image] Would licensure of industry engineers promote ethical behavior?
If management wanted to overrule an engineer's judgment
regarding safety, for instance, might a PE license help the engineer stand
up to itueven prevail?

Roger Boisjoly, one of three lead engineers for Morton Thiokol, a NASA
contractor that helped develop the space shuttle Challenger's solid rocket
booster, bases his answer on bitter experience. He and two other Thiokol
engineers warned senior managers of the instability of the space shuttles'
O-rings, to no avail.

Later, Boisjoly had the unenviable duty of acting as "whistleblower" before
a presidential commission (see August 1995 ET). "I truly believe from my
experience in the Challenger episode that if I had been licensed and threw
that code of ethics in [management's] face, I think it would have got them
to think," says Boisjoly.

Boisjoly and two other engineers attended a late-night meeting at which
they raised fears of O-ring failure. Thiokol management, however, dismissed
the engineers' warnings. The Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch.

Clifton Wright, chairman emeritus and director of the Houston-based A/E
firm 3D/International, sees a trend toward more licensure and
professionalism than in the past. Wright attributes this to management's
increased recognition of the need for engineers with high technical
qualifications and ethical standards.

"I have always encouraged [licensure] from the ethical standpoint, and also
from the standpoint of professional developmentufor the examination that
goes with it and the professional education requirements mandated by some
states," says Wright.

Following a 34-year career with a major airplane manufacturer, professional
engineer Milton Tiede believes that "in terms of being able to stand up in
an industrial environment against something wrong or not quite truthful,
the PE license permits the engineer to disassociate from that particular

If the engineer is not listened to, he may be able to seek leverage through
the state engineer's licensing board, he adds.

Such is the case in North Carolina. Jerry Carter, executive secretary of
the state Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land
Surveyors, points out that while any engineer is morally bound to protect
the public safety, "the licensed engineer is 'legally' bound to protect the
public safety." For engineers and their employers, failure to do so can
result in court action and loss of license.

In North Carolina, the board investigates complaints, and if there is
reason to believe the allegations, the board can take disciplinary
actionufrom reprimands to license revocation.

"This means that a person no longer has the right to practice their
livelihood from that point forward; essentially it's like a death
sentence," says Carter.

Although the board does not have that degree of control over unlicensed
engineers, Carter adds that the board will turn information over to the
Attorney General's office if they suspect an unlicensed engineer is
practicing wrongfully.

After 27 years as an unlicensed engineer, Boisjoly decided to earn his PE
following the Challenger tragedy. Today, he goes by the NSPE Code Of

Boisjoly quotes from the code: "'Engineers . . . shall hold paramount the
safety, health, and welfare of the public . . . If engineers' judgment is
overruled under circumstances that endanger life or property, they shall
notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be
appropriate.' Those two sentences in themselves are enough to make the
organization that is trying to get you to play ball, to stop and think
about what they are doing."

Encouraging Licensure

Some in corporate America would also like to see their engineers become
licensed. It could mean a more competent work force, less government
interference, reduced overhead due to reduced insurance costs, and lower
legal fees. DuPont, for example, encourages all of its engineers to become

Engineering Director Deborah Grubbe says the company's ethical policy
assures employees that responsible conduct is encouraged. "In the long run,
ethical behavior can save the company money," she says.

Notes Wright: "Recently, we're seeing more owners and agencies requiring in
their proposals for design or construction management that key positions be
filled by licensed engineers. That is another motivator for licensing. You
wouldn't go to a doctor who wasn't licensed, would you?"

Throughout Wright's career, he says he has always encouraged those under
his direction to become licensed, in part because it promotes a better
architect or engineer, and, consequently, better products.

Not An Issue

In some cases, licensing engineers in industry is not seen as important.
Neil Ruenzel of Electric Boat Corporation, builders of nuclear submarines
for the U.S. Navy, says that licensing is less important in his industry.

The company has many engineers, some licensed and some not. "Submarines are
far more complex than anything that's sent into space, and it's a far more
hostile environment beneath the sea than it is in a vacuum in space," says

For that reason, he points out, "the collective mentality in the submarine
world is one of absolute relentless pursuit of quality. So when people
raise their hand on an issue, they get listened to whether they are
licensed or not."

The Golden Rule

Says Boisjoly: "What I went through, while it's about a piece of hardware
failure, is really not an engineer issue. It's really about ethical issues
and standing up and practicing the golden rule for a change. People are
reticent to do that because when they do, they get creamed, and that
effectively silences others."

The first step for engineers in a similar predicament, says Boisjoly, is to
gather legal support for their position and try to settle the issue through
the organization's chain of command. Next, find out if you are a "majority
of one." He adds: "If you get co-legal support, your chance of success is
much better."

There's no end to the debate about whether licensing industry engineers
would promote ethical behavior. In some companies it is clearly seen as
positive; in others, it is less of a concern.

For those like Roger Boisjoly who have experienced the dilemma firsthand,
the ability to fall back on the ethical obligations that come with
licensure gives a way to call time-out and redirect attentionusomething he
hoped would have happened a dozen years ago.

Copyright 1997 National Society of Professional Engineers

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[Image] Editorials

Licensure as Shield

Two realities: First, business competition and the quest for profits are a
sign of economic health, assuring continued growth and productivity.
Second, the high pressure to produce profits can sometimes get the better
of well-intentioned people when it comes to public safety risks.

The onus to protect the public from unsafe products initially falls upon
engineers. Their designs provide the basis for product safety. Usually this
works pretty wellubut not always. As the economic stakes rise in our global
economy, expedience sometimes overides caution (as it did in the Challenger

Licensure of engineers in industry won't fix human nature, but it can
provide a tool for engineers who face management pressure to act against
sound engineering judgment. (See March feature.)

PEs can invoke the legal obligation to guard public safety and, if needed,
to notify the appropriate individuals should dangerous decisions be made.
The PE can say, "I'll lose my license if I do that, and I won't."

The Business of NSPE

To survive, even established businesses have to change their practices.
While some traditionalists may flinch at calling a professional society
such as NSPE a business, in today's world, the analogy hits home. NSPE
exists as an enterprise to provide its members what they want, at a price
they are willing to pay. The members guide the organization not only
through their governance structure, but through their pocketbooks.

As NSPE state presidents-elect heard from association professional Jack
Schlegel at NSPE's Charlotte meeting, new, younger association members,
often from busy, two-income families, are looking to association membership
with an eye toward "what's in it for me."

These members might like the altruistic and public-service aspects of NSPE
activitiesuwhich will continueubut they'll look at their NSPE dues bill and
their time constraints and ask: "Does this membership help me personally,
in my career or in my business? Will I get back my dues investment through
member discounts and in the products and information I can't conveniently
get anywhere else?"

That's why NSPE made the major move to annual all-member meetings, with
their exhibits, seminars, business meetings, roundtable discussions, and
networking social events. As the only true professional society for
engineers, NSPE can provide that special niche of professional and
management education, and the accompanying networking opportunities, with
the focus on PEs.

The successful Charlotte meeting, with its first-ever exhibits, represented
a milestone in NSPE's ongoing efforts to reinvent itself. Future member
participation in the annual meetings will tell the story of whether this
new road turns into a four-lane highway.

Guarding the 'E' in PE

New Hampshire House Bill 192 barely made a blip on the legislature's radar
screen. It was introduced and stamped "inexpedient to legislate" before it
even got going. Although the bill did not make it far, professional
engineers everywhere should be wary of legislation like House Bill 192.

Under New Hampshire law, a company must have a PE on its board or as an
officer for it to use the term engineering in its advertising. The bill,
however, would have allowed the registration of trade names with the words
engineer and engineering when the name is qualified by "computer-related
language," such as "cybernetic" and "software."

Engineers argued that the bill would open the door to encroachment on their
title. On the other side, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Susan Durham (R), argued
that software engineer is a widely known term and should be allowed in a
company's name. By preventing the use of such names, the current state
engineering law restrains trade, Durham said.

Despite its quick defeat, the bill caught the attention of legislators and
may have earned some sympathizers. House members have said they will
closely watch the outcome of a federal court case in which software company
Novell has sued the Nevada State Board of Professional Engineers and Land
Surveyors and its executive director. Novell claims the Nevada board is
violating its right to use the term Certified Novell Engineer.

House Bill 192 shows that it does not take much for a threat to develop. In
this case, one company raised the issue to one legislator with a
sympathetic ear. Even though the bill was quickly dismissed, the issue is
gaining momentum. Most importantly, this is not a New Hampshire issue; it's
a professional issue, and PEs across the country need to guard against the
threat of encroachment on their title.

Copyright 1997 National Society of Professional Engineers

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