Engineering ethics

Engineering ethics

Engineering ethics is the field of applied ethics which examines and sets standards for engineers' obligations to the public, their clients, employers and the profession. This article addresses the subject for both professional engineers and other engineers.

Engineering does not have a single uniform system, or standard, of ethical conduct across the entire profession. Ethical approaches vary somewhat by discipline and jurisdiction, but are most influenced by whether the engineers are independently providing professional services to clients, or the public if employed in government service; or if they are employees of an enterprise creating products for sale.

In the United States the first are usually licensed Professional engineers, are governed by statute, and have fairly consistent codes of professional ethics. The latter, working as engineers in industry, are governed by various laws including whistleblowing, and product liability laws, and often rely on principles of business ethics rather than engineering ethics.

Professional and Chartered engineers

:"Main articles: Professional engineer, Chartered engineer"Professional engineers (Chartered engineers in the United Kingdom.) are distinct from other engineers in that they have obtained some form of license, charter, or registration from a government agency or charter-granting authority acting on their behalf. As such they are subject to regulation by these bodies, as are other regulated professions.

Professional and Chartered engineers enjoy significant influence over their regulation. They are often the authors of the pertinent codes of ethics used by some of these organizations. These engineers in private practice often, but not always, find themselves in traditional professional-client relationships in their practice. Engineers employed in government service find themselves on the other side of the same relationship.

Engineers in industry, sometimes termed "graduate engineers" in the US if they hold a Bachelor's degree, are not formally accredited by government agencies. Their professional relationships are much more likely to be employee-employer relationships. Layton (1986) ]

Despite the different focus, engineers in industry or private practice face similar ethical issues and reach similar conclusions. cite paper | author = NSPE | title = NSPE Ethics in Employment Task Force Report | url = | accessdate = 2006-10-20 ] One American engineering society, the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) has sought to extend professional licensure and a code of ethics across the field regardless of practice area or employment sector. Layton (1986). pp. 238-239. ]

Current codes of ethics

Many American engineering professional societies have prepared codes of ethics. Some go back to the early decades of the twentieth century. These have been incorporated to a greater or lesser degree into the regulatory laws of most states and codes

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in the UK has a code of ethics incorporated into its standards of conduct. ICE (2004). ] The Canadian societies of Professional engineers likewise have as well. These codes of ethics share many similarities. (See "Reference" below for some of these and links.)

General principles

Codes of engineering ethics identify a specific precedence with respect to the engineer's consideration for the public, clients, employers, and the profession.

This is an example from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE)::"Fundamental Canons:#Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties. :#Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence. :#Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner. :#Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest. :#Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others. :#Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession and shall act with zero-tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption. :#Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision." ASCE [1914] (2006). ]

Like virtually all professional societies and chartering authorities, ASCE expands upon these and publishes specific guidance. ASCE (2000). ]

First principle

As noted above, generally the first duty recognized by Professional and Chartered engineers is to the safety of the public.

The ICE's "Code of Professional Conduct" identifies similar ethical values as the ASCE's but likewise places the good of the public as the highest ethic.:"Members of the ICE should always be aware of their overriding responsibility to the public good. A member’s obligations to the client can never override this, and members of the ICE should not enter undertakings which compromise this responsibility. The ‘public good’ encompasses care and respect for the environment, and for humanity’s cultural, historical and archaeological heritage, as well as the primary responsibility members have to protect the health and well being of present and future generations." ICE (2004). p. 38. ]

Canadian engineering codes of ethics also place the public good above all other concerns::*Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO): "A practitioner shall, regard the practitioner's duty to public welfare as paramount." PEO. "Professional Engineers Ontario Code of Ethics". Section 77.2.i of the Ontario Regulation 941. Retrieved: 2006-10-19. ] :*L'Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ): "In all aspects of his work, the engineer must respect his obligations towards man and take into account the consequences of the performance of his work on the environment and on the life, health and property of every person." OIQ. [ R.R.Q., 1981, c. I-9, r. 3, s. 2.01.] . Retrieved: 2006-10-19. ]

As in ASCE's Fundamental Canon 1, other American professional societies are likewise specific on this point::*National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE): "Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall: Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public." NSPE (2006). "Code of Ethics", [ Fundamental Canon 1.] . Retrieved: 2006-10-19. ] :*American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME): "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties." ASME. "Code of Ethics". [ Fundamental Canon 1.] . Retrieved: 2006-10-19. ] :*Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE): "We, the members of the IEEE, … do hereby commit ourselves to the highest ethical and professional conduct and agree: 1. to accept responsibility in making decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment;" IEEE (2006). "Code of Ethics" [ Canon 1.] . Retrieved: 2006-10-19. ] :*American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE): "To achieve these goals, members shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and protect the environment in performance of their professional duties." AIChE (2003). [ "Code of Ethics"] Retrieved: 2006-10-21. ]


A basic ethical dilemma is that an engineer has the duty to report to the appropriate authority a possible risk to others from a client or employer failing to follow the engineer's directions. According to first principles, this duty overrides the duty to a client and/or employer. An engineer may be disciplined, or have their license revoked, even if the failure to report such a danger does not result in the loss of life or health.

In many cases, this duty can be discharged by advising the client of the consequences in a forthright matter, and assuring the client takes the engineer's advice. However, the engineer must ensure that the remedial steps are taken and, if they are not, the situation must be reported to the appropriate authority. ASCE (2000). pp. 5-6. ] In very rare cases, where even a governmental authority may not take appropriate action, the engineer can only discharge the duty by making the situation public. cite paper | author = NSPE | title = Final Report of the NSPE Task Force on Overruling Engineering Judgment to the NSPE Board of Directors | date = 2006-06-30 | url = | accessdate = 2008-02-20 ] As a result, whistleblowing by professional engineers is not an unusual event, and courts have often sided with engineers in such cases, overruling duties to employers and confidentiality considerations that otherwise would have prevented the engineer from speaking out.

Other ethical issues

There are several other ethical issues that engineers may face. Some have to do with technical practice, but many others have to do with broader considerations of business conduct. These include:
*Ensuring legal compliance
*Conflict of interest
*Bribery and kickbacks
*Treatment of confidential or proprietary information
*Consideration of the employer’s assets
*Relationships with clients, consultants, competitors, and contractors
*Gifts, meals, services, and entertainment
*Outside employment/activities (Moonlighting)

Some engineering societies are addressing environmental protection as a stand-alone question of ethics.

The field of business ethics often overlaps and informs ethical decision making for engineers.


The nineteenth century and growing concern

As engineering rose as a distinct profession during the nineteenth century, engineers saw themselves as either independent specialists or technical employees of large enterprises. In the United States growing professionalism gave rise to the development of four founding engineering societies: ASCE (1851), the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE) (1884), The AIEE merged with the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) (1912) in 1963 to form the IEEE. ] ASME (1880), and the American Institute of Mining Engineers (AIME) (1871). AIME is now the umbrella organization of four technical societies: the [ Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration] (SME) (1957), The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society (TMS) (1957), the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) (1957), and the [ Association For Iron and Steel Technology] (AIST) (1974). Neither AIME, nor its subsidiary societies have adopted a formal code of ethics. ] ASCE and AIEE were more closely identified with the engineer as learned professional, where ASME, to an extent, and AIME almost entirely identified with the view that the engineer is a technical employee. Layton (1986) p. 35. ] Even so, at that time ethics was viewed as a personal rather than a broad professional concern. ASCE (2000). p. 10. ]

Turning of the twentieth century and turning point

As the nineteenth century drew to a close and the twentieth century began, there were a series of significant structural failures, including some spectacular bridge failures, notably the Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster (1876), Tay Bridge Disaster (1879), and the Quebec Bridge collapse (1907). These had a profound effect on engineers and forced the profession to confront shortcomings in technical and construction practice, as well as ethical standards.

One response was the development of formal codes of ethics by three of the four founding engineering societies. AIEE adopted theirs in 1912. ASCE and ASME did so in 1914. Layton (1986). pp. 70 & 114. ] AIME did not adopt a code of ethics in its history.

Concerns for professional practice and protecting the public highlighted by these bridge failures, as well as the Boston molasses disaster (1919), provided impetus for another movement that had been underway for some time: to require formal credentials (Professional licensure in the US.) as a requirement to practice. This involves meeting some combination of educational, experience, and testing requirements. Layton (1986). pp. 124-125. ]

Over the following decades most American states and Canadian provinces either required engineers to be licensed, or passed special legislation reserving title rights to organization of professional engineers. The Canadian model is to require all persons working in fields of engineering that posed a risk to life, health, property, the public welfare and the environment to be licensed, and all provinces required licensing by the 1950s.

The US model has generally been only to require those practicing independently (i.e. consulting engineers) to be licensed, while engineers working in industry, education, and sometimes government need not be licensed. This has perpetuated the split between professional engineers and those in industry. Professional societies have adopted generally uniform codes of ethics. On the other hand technical societies have generally not adopted these, but instead sometimes offer ethics education and resources to members similar to those of the professional societies. This is not uniform, and the question of who is to be held in the highest regard: the public or the employer, is still an open one in industry, and sometimes in professional practice.

Current status

The difference in perspective between the "engineer as a professional" and the "engineer as employee" is still reflected today in the use of the title "engineer". In US industry, the title "engineer" is determined by the firm and can often apply to anyone executing design work. These can include individuals with an Associate degree or degree in engineering technology. Here, the term "graduate engineer" is pertinent to differentiate those with a bachelor of science degree in engineering. While most American state licensure laws require a bachelor of science degree for licensure, the current US model law for Professional Engineers requires a minimum of a master of science degree in engineering, or a bachelor of science degree with additional equivalent graduate level work. [cite web| url=| publisher=National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying| accessdate=2007-09-20| date=2006| title=Model Law ] . This has received strong support from civil engineeers. American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) (2001) "Academic Prerequisites for Licensure and Professional Practice". Policy Statement [ 465] .] American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) (2007) White Paper on Implementation of Additional Engineering Education Requirements as a Prerequisite for Licensure [ ] ]

That difference in perspective has also led to the division of engineering societies broadly into professional and technical societies. Both professional and technical societies advance technical practice through developing standards, For example, in the US, ASCE, IEEE, and SAE each are well known in their respective arenas for their technical standards. These are often incorporated into building codes, industry standards, etc.] and providing educational, and training resources. However, professional societies like ASCE, ASME, IEEE, and later AIChE (1907), and NSPE (1934), also focus on professional practice issues facing the engineer such as licensing laws and ethics.

Technical societies like AIME, the American Railway Engineering Association (AREA) (1899), AREA merged with two technical societies into the [ American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association] in 1997. AREA did not, and AREMA does not, have a formal code of ethics. ] and later the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) (1905) and Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) (1932) It should be noted that not all technical societies lack codes of ethics. SME adopted its [ code of ethics] in 1990. It contains almost all of the concerns expressed by other professional societies, including whistle-blowing when the public safety is threatened. ] generally don't address professional practice issues, including ethics.

Current ethical issues

Efforts to promote ethical practice continue. In addition to the professional societies and chartering organizations efforts with their members, the Canadian Iron Ring and American Order of the Engineer trace their roots to the 1907 Quebec Bridge collapse. Both require members to swear an oath to uphold ethical practice and wear a symbolic ring as a reminder.

Currently, bribery and political corruption is being addressed very directly by several professional societies and business groups around the world. cite book | author = Transparency International and Social Accountability International | authorlink = Transparency International | date = 2003 | title = Business Principles for Countering Bribery | url = | accessdate = 2006-10-20 ] cite press release | title = Report Details Guidelines to Reduce Corruption in Engineering and Construction Industry | publisher = ASCE | date = 2005-06-17 | url = | accessdate = 2006-10-20 ] However, new issues have arisen, such as offshoring, sustainable development, and environmental protection, that the profession is having to consider and address.

Case studies and key individuals

Petroski notes that most engineering failures are much more involved than simple technical mis-calculations and involve the failure of the design process or management culture. Petroski (1985) ] However, not all engineering failures involve ethical issues. The infamous collapse of Galloping Gertie, the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge (1940), and the losses of the Mars Polar Lander (1999) and Mars Climate Orbiter (2002) were technical and design process failures.

These episodes of engineering failure include ethical as well as technical issues.
*Space Shuttle Columbia disaster (2003)
*Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (1986)
*Chernobyl disaster (1986)
*Bhopal disaster (1984)
*Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse (1981)
*Love Canal (1980), Lois Gibbs
*Three Mile Island accident (1979)
*Citigroup Center (1978), William LeMessurier
*Ford Pinto safety problems (1970s)
*Minamata disease (1908-1973)
*Chevrolet Corvair safety problems (1960s), Ralph Nader, and "Unsafe at Any Speed"
*Boston molasses disaster (1919)
*Quebec Bridge collapse (1907), Theodore Cooper
*Johnstown Flood (1889), South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club
*Tay Bridge Disaster (1879), Thomas Bouch, William Henry Barlow, and William Yolland
*Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster (1876), Amasa Stone



*cite book | author = American Society of Civil Engineers | authorlink = American Society of Civil Engineers | date = 2006 | origdate = 1914 | title = Code of Ethics | publisher = ASCE Press | location = Reston, Virginia, USA | url = | accessdate = 2006-10-20

*cite book | author = American Society of Civil Engineers | authorlink= American Society of Civil Engineers | date = 2000 | title = Standards of Professional Conduct | publisher = ASCE Press|location = Reston, Virginia, USA | url = | accessdate = 2006-10-20

*cite book | author = Institution of Civil Engineers | authorlink= Institution of Civil Engineers | date = 2004 | title = Royal Charter, By-laws, Regulations and Rules | url = | accessdate = 2006-10-20

*cite book | first = Edwin | last = Layton | date = 1986 | title = The Revolt of the Engineers: Social Responsibility and the American Engineering Profession | publisher = The Johns Hopkins University Press | location = Baltimore, Maryland, USA | id= ISBN 0-8018-3287-X

*cite book | first = Henry | last = Petroski | authorlink = Henry Petroski | date = 1985 | title = To Engineer is Human: the Role of Failure in Successful Design | publisher = St Martins Press | id= ISBN 0-312-80680-9

External links


*Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (APEGBC): [ Act, Bylaws and Code of Ethics]

*Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO): [ Code of Ethics (See link on front page.)]

*L'Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec (OIQ): [ Code of Ethics of Engineers]

*Iron Ring: [ The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer]

United Kingdom

*Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE): [ "Royal Charter, By-laws, Regulations and Rules"]

United States

* [ National Institute for Engineering Ethics] (NIEE)

*National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE): [ Code of Ethics] : [ Board of Ethical Review and BER Cases] : [ Ethics Resources and References ]

*American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE): [ Code of Ethics]

*American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE): [ Code of Ethics] : [ Standards of Professional Conduct for Civil Engineers]

*American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME): [ Code of Ethics]

*Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE): [ Code of Ethics]

*The Order of the Engineer: [ The Obligation of an Engineer]

*Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME): [ Code of Ethics]

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