The New Engineer

Citation: This was article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Your ethical obligations go further than you might think', Engineers Australia, July 1998, p. 56.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

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Are an engineer's ethical obligations discharged once they report their concerns to their superiors? Should an engineer feel that that their ethical duties have been fulfilled when they have warned their employers of dangers to public welfare, health and safety, even though those employers have not acted on that warning? Can ethical obligations be transferred to others so easily?

Not according to the US National Society for Professional Engineering (NSPE) in a case involving a city engineer.* The engineer was the most senior engineer working for the city council, reporting directly to the City Administrator. The engineer was responsible for waste disposal and had informed the City Administrator and some councillors that the city's waste disposal plant could not adequately handle the waste flow during rainy periods. In such circumstances there was a legal obligation to inform the state water pollution control authority of the situation.

Upon being infromed of the situation the City Administrator transferred responsibility for the plant from the engineer to a technician and the engineer was instructed not to discuss the matter further or she would lose her job. The pollution control authority was not informed. During the following months storms occurred which caused the plant to overflow into the river which was a water supply to others downstream.

The NSPE Board of Ethical Review found that the engineer had not fulfilled her ethical obligations: "where an engineer determines that a case may involve a danger to the public safety, the engineer has not merely an 'ethical right' but has an 'ethical obligation' to report the matter to the proper authorities." In this case the Board determined that reporting the situation to the City Administrator and members of the council was not sufficient.

"It is clear under the facts of this case that Engineer A was aware of a pattern of ongoing disregard for the law by her immediate superior as well as members of the city council. After several attempts to modify the views of her superiors, it is our view that Engineer A knew or should have known that the 'proper authorities' were not the city officials, but more probably state officials (i.e., state water pollution control authority)."

The Board was also concerned that the engineer had allowed her "engineering authority to be circumvented and overruled by a non-engineer" in such circumstances. It was aware that had she acted ethically the engineer would have risked losing her job but stated that to not act in that way was to ignore the code of ethics and jeopardise the standing and interests of the profession.

The Institution of Engineers, Australia guidelines on whistleblowing also state that when public safety is threatened or unethical policies are involved, engineers have "a responsibility under the Code of Ethics to ensure that such practices are brought to the attention of those with direct authority to rectify the problem or, if the warnings are not acted upon, to raise the matter elsewhere".

Clearly the new engineer, the ethical engineer, takes full responsibility not only for their own actions but also for what they know. They are prepared to act on their own judgement of what is best for the community, whether or not they are supported by their employers in this. This is where ethics go beyond legal obligations and why they are necessary despite the existence of a legal framework of protections. Engineers are not only entitled but also obliged to report their concerns to the appropriate authorities.

* The details of this case were available on the internet at The opinion cited here is based on data of a particular case submitted to the Board of Ethical Review and should not be construed as expressing any opinion on the ethics of specific individuals in other cases.