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Article # 0019
Shelly S. Hattan, PE
I have been in the engineering field for about 18 years and have literally worked my way through the ranks – from an administrative assistant to a CAD operator/technician and finally a licensed professional engineer. Currently, I have my own consulting firm and have been open for business for seven years.
Have I learned a great deal over the past 18 years? Most definitely. But my real education began when I hung my shingle out and started consulting on my own.
Looking back, I have to say I was very naïve. I believed that people are always going to want to do the right thing, but I’ve found that’s just not the case. One of the challenges I face as an engineer who is a business owner is that I do find myself in ethical situations, more times than I care to admit. I want to be ethical, but it’s really a challenge to an engineer.
We read about ethics in school and it’s always presented as being important to be ethical. But the first challenge is to really ask – what is engineering ethics? Most of the journals that I see only present case studies. I work with certainties and numbers and exactness. I find, as an engineer, the whole subject of ethics to be very nebulous – and this makes me uncomfortable.
So, what is a lone engineer to do?
I suggest your first stop is to actually read the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics. It is broken out into three different parts: Fundamental Canons, Rules of Practice, and Professional Obligations.
But how can this be useful for a practicing engineer? I actually take the code and go through it point by point.
Here’s one of my case studies. I was hired by a company to draw up a small fire hydrant lead line for a local camp dormitory. Initially, the job seemed very straightforward; but when I received the results of a pressure test on a nearby fire hydrant, the project became very complex. The pressure test yielded a low pressure, and adding a fire hydrant lead was not going to fix this.
The client was a non-profit organization that relies on donations for funding. The developer did not want to hear that they were looking at having to install sprinklers in the dormitory. The finances were just not there. I was asked by the client to just stamp the drawings I had prepared showing a fire hydrant – which was also located more than 300 feet away from the building. I politely told them that I could not do that knowing the water pressure would not be available in the event of a fire. Furthermore, the proposed location of the fire hydrant was too far from the dorm. I then proceeded to work with the city fire department to try to come up with a viable alternative. We were able to come up with a good design, but it did significantly increase the cost of the project – also something the client did not want to hear.
I was just starting out with my own consulting company, and I had just recently obtained my Professional Engineers license. I was all by myself. I did not look at the Code of Ethics while this was going on, but I wish I had. If I had, then it would have definitely helped me through this difficult process.
So, let’s do just that. Let’s go through the Code and see how it would have helped me at the time. Since the Code is fairly long, I will only hit on the parts that really pertain to this particular predicament.
The first Rule of Practice is “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” I feel this part pertains to this situation the most.
a. 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.
I notified the client and told them the water pressure was just not available to allow us to set a fire hydrant in the location they wanted to put it. I went back to the City Fire Department and worked with them to come up with several alternatives. City officials in the water department kept assuring the client that the pressure will eventually be supplied, but it just wasn’t available at that time. This, of course, did not help my credibility with my client. But my duty is not to design to what is going to happen in the future, it is to determine if the current circumstance would endanger life or property and, in my judgment, this situation met that criterion. The client was trying to overrule me on this project. I was presenting a solution to the problem, but the client did not want to deviate from the original fire hydrant location.
“The city will accept the drawing if it’s stamped by a Professional Engineer,” said the client.
“We will accept your drawing, but ultimately you are the one responsible for the design,” said the city officials.
I felt that everyone just wanted me to submit a drawing with my engineer’s seal on it and move on down the road. But I knew it was wrong and notified the client and the city that I would not continue as the engineer of record as the client was trying to overrule my judgment that, in my opinion, can endanger life and property.
b. Engineers shall approve only those engineering documents that are in conformity with applicable standards.
In this case, the water pressure was not meeting the city standard or the National Fire Safety Code, so I could not approve just setting the fire hydrant in hopes that the city would fulfill their pressure obligation. This project was a new development, and all the development’s impact to public facilities is borne by the developer, not by the city. One solution to the problem was to erect a pump station that would increase the water pressure. The city said they would install one, but it would be years before they could include it in the capital improvement program. Furthermore, the client wanted to place the fire hydrant at the front of the property. The dorm was located a couple thousand feet from this location. Installing the fire hydrant so it would be within 300 feet of the dorm ran into increased cost and maintenance issues. By installing the fire hydrant at the front of the property, the hydrant would be considered a public hydrant and maintained by the city. In order to properly place the fire hydrant close to the building, more line would have had to be laid, thus increasing the cost of the project, and the line would have to be a dedicated private fire line – in other words, the client would have had to maintain it.
c. Engineers shall not reveal facts, data or information without the prior consent of the client or employer except as authorized by law or this Code.
I revealed information that was required by the city – in this case, confirmation of the water pressure. I did not go to the press when my client fired me. It was something I did consider, but in the end I kept all confidences.
This project was one of my first projects after I left to go out “on my own”. It was a really difficult decision to walk away from the project, but it was pretty obvious that the client was not going to budge from his original position. During this time, I literally had nightmares of the dorm catching fire while children were sleeping with the fire department unable to put out the fire because they didn’t have enough pressure and the fire hydrant was not located close enough to the dorm.
I did not receive any money for my time on this project, but I do sleep better knowing that I did not willingly participate in endangering lives.
Whenever I do come across a situation that I feel uncomfortable with, I now look over the Ethics Code. And you know what? It does help me make the right choice.
Bio: Shelly S. Hattan, PE is the owner of CivilGrrl Engineering, Inc. an engineering firm licensed to practice in the State of Texas. Shelly received her Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1994, she received her PE in 1999, and CivilGrrl Engineering has been in operation since 2000. CivilGrrl Engineering is associated with a wide variety of engineering projects, including subdivision design, gaswell permitting, and commercial site-planning. The firm’s office is located in Southlake, Texas.
Article # 0019 TEST QUESTIONS:
1. What does NSPE stand for?
National Society of Professional Ethics
National Society of Professional Engineers
National Society of Professional Educators
National Society of Puppet Entertainers
2. The three parts of the NSPE code of Ethics are ...?
Part A, Part B, and Part C.
Ethical Fundamentals, Legal Considerations, and Client Obligations
Fundamental Canons, Rules of Practice, and Professional Obligations.
When to Lie, How to Cheat, and Where to Hide.
3. The first Rule of Practice is ...?
“Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public."
"Engineers shall always consider the effect of their work on the safety and security of the people."
"Engineers shall owe their first allegiance to the safety and welfare of society."
"Engineers shall always perform the services requested to the best of their abilities."
4. What is the missing portion of The first Rule of Practice part a. 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.
accept that he who has the gold makes the rules.
file a complaint with the NSPE and notify the Better Business Bureau.
make sure their liability insurance is current.
5. What is the missing portion of The first Rule of Practice part b. Engineers shall approve only ... ?
plans, drawings, and other documents that meet applicable standards for the work.
those engineering documents that meet the clients demands and economic considerations.
those engineering documents that are in conformity with applicable standards.
their own work or ideas and reject any other suggestions.
6. Fill in the blank from The first Rule of Practice part c. Engineers shall not reveal ____ without the prior consent of the client or employer except as authorized by law or this Code.
All of the above
7. When the author received the results of a ____ test on a nearby fire hydrant, the project became very complex.
All of the above
8. In this case, the client was a ..?
multi-national corporate developer.
completely reasonable individual.
9. In this case, the water pressure was not meeting the ____ or the National Fire Safety Code.
10. What does the author recommend engineers do when presented with an ethical dilemma?
Read the NSPE Code of Ethics.
Start your own business.
Call the proper authorities for guidance.
All of the above.
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