Earnest Ethics and Obligations
Since ethics have become part of the required continuing education for Engineers licensed in Ohio , there have been various discussions and educational offerings regarding an engineer’s ethical obligations. Section 4733-35 of the Ohio Administrative Code provides the code of ethics for engineers and surveyors in the state of Ohio. It begins as follows:
In order to safeguard the life, health, property and welfare of the public and the state of Ohio, to maintain integrity and high standards of skills and practice in the professions of engineering and surveying, the following rules of professional conduct, promulgated in accordance with Chapter 4733. of the Revised Code, shall be binding upon every person holding a certificate of registration as a professional engineer or as a professional surveyor.
Frequently, ethics training and discussions seem to focus on situations or circumstances related to the details of the regulations, such as sealing documents or reporting requirements. This column seeks to expand on that by posing some questions without clear answers. We are seeking your perspectives; please reply with your thoughts on these hypothetical situations.
When Continuing Education Reveals Errors
At a professional development seminar, Earnest Engineer learns a calculation method he has used multiple times can be unconservative. It can yield designs which fail to meet established code requirements. Unfortunately, there is no clear method to quickly ascertain the circumstances where the resultant design fails to meet code and this deficiency occurs in a significant portion of uses, although not all. Earnest appropriately modifies his calculation methods for all future cases.
Question 1: Does Earnest have an ethical obligation to check past calculations for a design deficiency?
Earnest starts to spot check some past projects already constructed. Many of the checks reveal no concerns, but he does find at least one significant deficiency. The rechecked design failed to meet the governing code minimum design values in place at the time of the project.
Question 2: What should Earnest do at this juncture?
Earnest shares his discovery with the firm owner, Pat President. Pat expresses concern over both the design deficiency and the significant time required to check past projects for this error. Further, Pat noted that for the project where Earnest found an error, the building has been in service for several years without a reported failure. Pat advises Earnest to pause his review of past projects and notes that a decision regarding Earnest’s information will follow shortly.
After several days, Earnest has no new directions regarding the errors. He asks Pat if a decision is forthcoming and is advised to keep holding. Earnest waits longer and receives no new information.
Question 3: Does Earnest have a responsibility to continue checking past projects?
Question 4: Does he have a responsibility to more widely share information about the error he has discovered?
After a what seems to Earnest like an extended period, he again meets with Pat. He learns that revealing the design deficiency will likely lead to legal actions against the firm which might not be covered by insurance. Earnest is advised against “opening that can of worms” any further at this time, but is not prohibited from checking past projects “on your own time” provided any findings are not disclosed outside the firm.
Earnest is shaken by the potential for his design to fail and begins checking past projects without reporting the time expended on time records. Unfortunately he discovers more instances of designs failing to meet code minimum standards.
He reports his updated findings to Pat, who is also disturbed by the revelation. Pat shares with Earnest the prediction that revealing these errors will likely lead to the firm’s bankruptcy, leading all employees there to lose their jobs. Pat asks Earnest to be silent about this until further notice. After a month, Earnest has no new direction.
Question 5: Does Earnest have an obligation to share his discovery with anyone else?
Earnest discusses his work situation at home. While his spouse is sympathetic, there is also a great concern over what full disclosure would mean to the family’s financial stability and any disruption to their daughter’s cancer treatments.
Question 6: Is Earnest limited to choosing between the financial stability required to continue medical treatment for his daughter and an engineer’s obligation to protect the public?
While the situation described above is hypothetical, it raises feasible concerns not easily resolved. Ethical dilemmas often seem to place two or more positive goals or aspirations in conflict. Here, Earnest is faces a circumstance where it appears he must balance the well being of family and potentially the firm’s future against an engineer’s obligation to the public. Similarly, and hopefully with less at stake, each of us is left to use our own best judgment to decide on our actions when faced with ethical questions.
Please share your thoughts regarding this topic and the questions raised. We also welcome your input on any other topic related to engineering licensure. Please contact us if you would like to contribute to this column.
FYI - More details and questions for this particular hypothetical case will follow in next month’s column.
Timothy M. Gilbert, P.E., S.E., SECB
SEAoO Licensure Committee