When an individual decides to become an engineer, he or she is often motivated by the desire to solve problems and to make the world a better place. But what happens when you are put in a position where you have to evaluate whether your work is being used to hurt rather than help the public?
An article in American Scientist magazine delves into some of the ethical dilemmas that engineers can face during the course of their careers.
Here are three modern scenarios where engineers have had to evaluate whether their scientific knowledge and technical expertise were being used to benefit the public or to fulfill another agenda. Find out how a number of engineers involved in each scenario were able to prevent the unethical use of science and engineering:
The Flint water crisis
In spring 2015, civil engineer Marc Edwards and his lab team uncovered a water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan. In April 2014, the city switched its local water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint River. This source change, combined with improper corrosion control, caused lead to leach from the city’s aging pipe system into the water. This allowed for the neutralization of chlorine treatments designed to keep drinking water safe, and also caused an unhealthy spike in the levels of lead found in residential drinking water. Lead concentrations approached 900 times the United States Environment Protection Agency’s (US EPA) safe drinking water limit and resulted in an increased number of cases of lead poisoning and Legionnaires’ disease in the city’s population.
After analyzing the results of approximately 120 lead test kits that Edwards’ team had sent to local households, they discovered that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and the US EPA had published reports with completely different results. The Flint Water Study website says that the MDEQ worked to discredit Edwards’ findings in the media, and it was later suggested that the MDEQ was using improper sampling methods by excluding data in order to meet regulations. According to the media, the MDEQ shared false information about Flint’s water quality with the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which is said to have also overlooked internal reports that raised concerns about the water quality. To prevent a scandal around the decision to change the water source, it appeared that a number of individuals at all levels within these organizations kept quiet and allowed residents to ingest unsafe water.
Thanks to the persistence and independent research done by Edwards and his team of engineers, the public and media became aware of the dangers of drinking their local water, and by 2016 the Governor declared a state of emergency. The Attorney General launched a state investigation into the Flint Water Crisis. Congressional hearings declared that the MDEQ was primarily responsible, however, accountability was also placed on the US EPA, the governor, state-appointed emergency managers and the City of Flint.
The “yellow light dilemma”
Since the 1920s, engineers have tried to determine the ideal length of time that yellow traffic lights should be illuminated to safely allow cars to either stop or clear an intersection. Traffic engineers have developed standardized formulas that help gauge the minimum amount of time that a yellow light should be illuminated at specific intersections, taking into account factors like average driver response times, speed, rates of deceleration, vehicle length, etc. A yellow light that is too long can lead drivers to disregard the cautionary warning, while a light that is too short can lead to increased risk of accidents. In general, the standard suggestion for yellow light intervals is between 3-6 seconds.
In Chicago in 2014, the use of red light cameras proved to complicate traffic control when a whistleblower revealed an internal misuse of the laws of physics. Redflex Traffic Systems, a firm operating over 380 red light cameras in Chicago, calculated that slightly reduced yellow light intervals would lead to an increased issuance of automated tickets. An additional 77,000 tickets, worth $7.7 million in revenue, were said to be attributed to this strategically shorter interval. Science and engineering software consultant Brian Ceccarelli believes a number of municipalities have become accustomed to increased revenue from the use of automated ticketing systems. According to an article in American Scientist magazine, it appears that as a result, many city officials and traffic firms have occasionally turned a blind eye to the misapplication of carefully considered engineering formulas.
Source: Henry Petroski, “Traffic Signals, Dilemma Zones, and Red-Light Cameras,” American Scientist, May-June 2016, 150-153.
The Volkswagen emissions scandal
In September 2015, an investigation by the US EPA discovered that Volkswagen diesel vehicles featured software that could detect controlled testing conditions. This feature prompted the vehicles to alter their performance to improve test results. The “defeat device” in some 11 million of the German cars worldwide enabled them to cheat emissions tests.
According to an article in the New Yorker, the most prominent theory behind the scandal was that the nature of the organization itself may have spawned the illicit tweaks to the vehicular systems. Volkswagen of America CEO Michael Horn claimed that the tampering was beyond his knowledge. Worldwide investigations, however, suggested that at least thirty managers were involved in the alterations.
Investigators suggest it is possible that Volkswagen’s engineers incrementally fine-tuned the engine software to meet emissions standards, without realizing how far the consecutive tweaks had taken them from the original system. The New Yorker proposed that “software changes the nature of our relationship to things, making rules feel malleable and more arbitrary. It enables the normalization of deviance.”
What is your take on the aforementioned ethical dilemmas? How can engineers prevent the unethical use of science and engineering? Have you ever faced a professional situation where you have had to weigh your ethics and principles against competing workplace pressures? We want to hear your thoughts!
This Post Has 41 Comments
I would report unethical conduct as soon as possible to the ‘proper authority’.
Thank you for sharing, Susana. We always appreciate hearing from our readers.
Two concerns with Susana’s response: 1) unethical is sometimes a subjective call, it is not necessarily black and white. Using the car speed analogy, is it unethical to exceed the speed limit or does it become an unethical issue only when there is an immediate danger to life and limb? Would you report someone going 5 km/hr over the limit? what about 50km km? (Speed limits are not set purely for safety reasons)
The second concern is identifying the “proper authorities” When unethical behavior becomes criminal it would go tp the police, but who makes that call.
In the initial cases one and three, there are clearly ethical and criminal implications as the public was exposed to significant health issues – Flint as a direct result whereas VW more indirect as an impact on the environment. Both actions were in contravention to current laws. However the “Yellow Light” scenario impacts the pocket book and may be more of a political issue – I’m less convinced that there is an ethical concern.
PS: I’m not convinced that noncompliance to law in itself is unethical as some laws need to be exposed as obsolete of just plain bad. For self preservation I want to clearly state that the only laws I sometimes disobey are under the traffic act.
Interesting comments. In regards to reporting those who drive 5 to 50 km / h over the speed limit, it just depends for me, who are we talking about. A wheezel, or a P.Eng. Because I assume, we, P.Eng appreciate our group rate car insurance and many of us wouldn’t even drive 5 km / h over the speed limit, unless it was a necessity (going with the flow). As for going to the police, I went. Numerous times, one time in engineering related matter, many times not. It seem to me, some still did not reach the high moral and ethical standard expected from professionals and many prefer to protect their pocket book instead, to eliminate the risk of a law siut. Sometimes a P.Eng might help them to that if feels necessary, in the interest of common good, not in the profit driven corporation’s interest as some foreign trained lawyer suggested we should do. That been said, as consequence many times not only the victim suffers in my opinion, many times their children as well, and potentially generations to come in the family of the victim.
“going with the flow” – an interesting concept. In many cases this is the cause of great abuses. Is this what happened at Fling or VW or SNC or the Quebec construction industry? Were all the enablers “going with the Flow”? “it’s okay your Honour, I was going with the flow. Everyone else was doing so what’s the harm?” If you don’t have a solid ethical basis then “going with the flow” will become an easy excuse. If, in your mind, anything greater than the posted speed limit is ‘wrong’ then ignore the flow and do the right thing.
By ‘going with the flow’ I meant strictly traffic flow.
I thought it wouldn’t be late to post the fact here,, that we were thought by driver instructors to go with the flow,, because holding up the traffic flow could lead to a collision: https://www.ontariohighwaytrafficact.com/exceeding-the-speed-limit-by-16-to-29-km-h/going-with-flow-traffic-t7556.html
It seems, law enforcement thinks otherwise. It happens sometimes during late hours, that the traffic flow around 120 km/h on the highway. I do agree, slowing down on my own might cause a collision, because people are eager to change lanes to pass me. I did try to slow down, and did slow down, everyone was passing me, no-one wanted to be driving behind me.
I took young drivers’ training. They also were teaching us to drive staggered, because it is safer to do so. They also thought the ‘S’ approach:, which I found to provide greater visibility beside providing more safety: https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20120727164922AA7KEPI The subject is not really professional engineering, however I thought it might be useful.
The incident in Flint, Michigan wasn’t really only a matter of unethical conduct, it seems to have been criminal negligence:
I believe the correct form of action is to approach the individuals or organizations and attempt to correct the problem. Whistleblowing is a last resort and puts all parties in a compromised position.
Good point and as Mr. Goodings stated earlier, it just depends what is at stake. If there is immediate dander to life, health, property and so on… , matters should be reported. Actually I very rarely noticed any change by talking, corresponding with an employer in writing, before reporting to higher authority (PEO). Many times clients were part of the problem. It seems in a global economy business can’t keep up with competition if shows lesser profile of their engineering employees. I remember one employer had to submit profiles of employees to their clients overseas. Instead of elaborating on the value of a Certificate of Authorization and employees working under such supervision, they seemed to try and beef up engineering titles. As well, in international employer’s database more qualified Canadian engineering graduates might hold the title of ‘Designer’ and variations, while those in other countries variations of ‘Engineer’. Guess who will be promoted in leadership ad governance. Those who were reduced to drafters and designers, or those who were holding the title of engineer?
I agree a normal course of action would be to approach individuals and aorganizations which you believe may be acting inapproapriately.
Section 77 of Regulation 941 states that “it is the duty of a practitioner to the public, to the practitioner’s employer, to the practitioner’s clients, to other licensed engineers of the practitioner’s profession, and to the practitioner to act at all times with…”
If, after having failed to resolve your concerns, one would consider the next step although I don’t know that I would call it “whistle blowing”. Whistle blowing suggests that you are doing something behind someone’s back which should not be the case. If I was dealing with a fellow professional or Certificate holder and could not resolve a concern I would suggest that we take the concern to PEO for guidance. The international scene is a bit more complicated in that PEO operates under the Ontario Engineering Act and only has jurisdiction on engineering activities, Professional Engineers and holders of Certificates in the province. Should the work be outside Ontario then the regulations of that jurisdiction would be applicable.
We are dealing with professional ethics here rather than “what-makes-a-good-person”. A professional co-work may be objectionable but that does not make him/her unethical.
I believe a key word is one used in the article “incremental”. It’s rarely a case where everything is fine until all of a sudden you are required or asked to do something unethical. It’s a slow evolving process as you push the line ever so little, then more and more until you reach the point of no return. You are then part of the problem – you contribute or participate in something that you would never had done at the get go. The issue becomes self preservation rather than public good. The key is to set clear “rules of engagement” at he beginning, both personal and corporate, with frequent review and action plan. Much like driving, you establish at what speed you are comfortable considering public safety and then regularly check the speedometer and adjust. Otherwise you tend to go faster and faster as you acclimatize to the sensation of speed.
Personally I don’t believe I have behaved unethically however I have caught myself pushing the line off and on – not visiting a site when, in retrospect, I should have; not challenging a statement when I new it to be false; avoiding confrontation rather than arguing for the “right thing to do”.
So, the message is – don’t wait for it to happen. Recognize the risk and mitigate (not of getting caught but of taking the wrong action).
What a great analogy, Peter! You’ve raised some very honest and interesting points and suggestions. Thank you for taking the time to share your comment.
Unfortunately in my opinion speed is not about what we are comfortable with, unless it was snowy, icy, slippery conditions. That’s at least the situation in Ontario, where it could be considered the safest to drive with proper driver education and training, even in harsh conditions.
As reply to ‘Otherwise you tend to go faster and faster as you acclimatize to the sensation of speed.’ That actually happens at work, because sometimes numbers count (profits and possibly executives’ bonuses), instead of health, safety and superior quality. The magic triangle has three corners: Time, Cost and Quality. One could spend enormous amount of time to try to maximize all, however that’s impossible (for someone who is not actually specialized on quality control).
Excellent point in the last paragraph. Unfortunately it seems even in higher circles money talks and the dog barks. See the unsuccessful interventions to repeal Section 12(3)(a) of the Professional Engineers Act. The government seems to ‘protect’ profit driven corporations’ pocket book with the Bill 218, Burden Reduction Act, 2016. By that workers and sometimes P.Eng are subjected to extremely challenging environments, as for example working for up to 70 hours a week for months, being subjected to various attitudes in the workplace, which might include bullying and harassment and if not controlled, might escalate to violence.
And as for the new carbon tax rules, I’m concerned, some workers might be exposed to toxic work environments in the hope of reducing emissions.
I really like your advice of setting clear ‘rules of engagement’ at the beginning, both personal and corporate, with frequent review and action plan. Thank you. I think whenever possible, setting such rules in writing could be beneficial.
When differences about levels of lead in the water became known, a prudent and ethical agency would not fight the result of different tests but would take the safer course of action and warn citizens to assume the worst until new tests were taken to verify their old results or confirm Edward’s results. Law suits are for cowards….they simply sought face saving actions at a time when many lives might possibly been at stake. Engineers always recognize that errors are a possibility.
Ontario’s P ENGs wear an iron ring on their right little finger to remind them of this fact.
A prudent and responsible public authority and should have recognized that after the new lights were installed and they experienced abnormal number of violations something might be wrong in the operation of the new lights. The agency could not conclude that the sudden and increased number of violations after the new lights were in place was due to an equally sudden change in driving habits by tens of 1000s of normal automobile drivers. Since the authority was serving the same public being charged, an honest way to act was to check their system. The authority was simply happy to seize a windfall income without asking what made this windfall happen. The public they serve always deserves fair treatment.
Plain civil or criminal fraud…no excuses can explain their action. The perpetrators should go to jail and their bosses (the company) be charged by the regulatory body and also volunteer to pay compensation to their trusting (former?) customers.
Mr. Goodings, I think these are good points. However law suits sometimes are necessary to seek justice. However that doesn’t mean in my opinion, that justice was always done. For example if someone was accused of lying as an EIT and not brought justice about, one the person becomes an P.Eng, might rather keep as quiet as possible until would be obtaining some form of evidence in a similar case of non-compliance of an employer, just to make sure the recent employer will not get away as the previous. As consequence the P.Eng sometimes is being accused of ‘being caught in the employer’s inappropriateness…’ However if the P.Eng would have brought the suspected wrongdoing to the attention of the ‘proper authority’ without evidence, could be accused of slander or libel, or of suffering of paranoia, which wouldn’t be the first time around. As well, the authority might be sued if something happened as they could not take action without evidence, however knew of the potential problem. As well, the employer might straighten their behavior for a while and fire the P.Eng if realized the P.Eng reported a suspicion. Then might continue activities without a P.Eng, which very likely happens in many circles, including with the knowledge of a safety authority..
You say “Mr. Goodings, I think these are good points. However law suits sometimes are necessary to seek justice”
When one uses lawsuits in the court to save his reputation instead of facing up to the fact that there may be a possible serious human heath issue afoot and taking action to see if it is a possibility seems to be an unethical and wrong headed tactic.
I agree. A P.Eng’s or P.E’s own interest shouldn’t be initiated through a lawsuit, before the public interest was properly upheld.
With regards to your response to Item 2 relating to the traffic light – ethical and fair are not the same thing. The ethical action is for the professional to advise the client as to the standards, the reasons for the standards and the possible effect of not complying with the standard. However, that being said, unless there is a strong direct link between the reduced time and public safety it now becomes a political issue as to whether the standard will be followed. The reported issue was excessive revenue rather than an increase in personal injury.
Well-stated cases, but they are all based in the US. It gives a false impression that things like that cannot happen in Canada. It would be good to see an ethical case written up about Walkerton and the Algoma Mall, and of course Westray in Nova Scotia. The latter was a classical case of “creeping ethics” as in the Volkswagen case, where safety rules were bent, stretched and violated – everyone knew and everyone turned a blind eye for revenue until there was a disaster.
Volkswagen did not do an unethical thing….their several high ranking techies are guilty of criminal fraud and the owner might be charged with being guilty of civil fraud….no ethics are involved. Cheating can never be classified as being unethical
Unethical can be defines as “an act nonconforming to accepted standards of conduct”. Cheating as you put it is unethical as it can be define much the same way. From a professional perspective, VW knowingly: 1) falsely represented its product; 2) did not comply with legislative requirements; 3) modified the product to misrepresent performance under testing. This in turn mislead the public in its contribution to atmospheric pollution quite possibly having a direct health effect on clients and the public at large and affecting their enjoyment of life. It can also be shown that their actions had a direct impact on their clients’ financial situation through reduced value of their purchase. Persons involved in the decision and cover-up including enablers were unethical and yes, cheaters as well.
My dictionary sez:
“CHEATING…to behave in a dishonest way in order to get what you want
UNETHICAL…to be morally wrong”
THE VW techie staff were cheaters first and last.
Being immoral is a subjective judgment call….different in all places in the world.( i.e. genital mutilation of women) but being a cheat is not a subjective call. It is wrong, wrong.
Therefore , in my view, this VW example of cheating should not have been included as an example of being unethical in the discussion of the question:
Ethics and engineering – what would you do in these scenarios?
Being immoral could sometimes be also against the law, so I would suggest if I may, that all P.Eng familiarize themselves and follow the law in case of such eventualities as well. For example in cases of indecent investigations. What’s beautiful abut the English language is, that most words have many meanings. One example in my dictionary shows (between others) the following definition: CHEATING: … ESCAPE, to avoid harm or injury by luck or cunning. So it seems to me some might have ‘cheated’ themselves out of their workplaces running under Section 12(3)(a)… My dictionary also shows the following single definition: UNETHICAL:… not confirming to agreed standards of moral conduct, especially within a particular profession. I tend to agree teh VW case shouldn’t simply be categorized as unethical.
Hello Darya – you are absolutely correct. These types of scenarios certainly can and do take place in Canada. In fact, you’ve shared some great examples here. Our intention is to explore several Canadian case studies in a subsequent blog post, so stay tuned!
From PEO Code of Ethics: “it is the duty of a practitioner to the public, to the practitioner’s employer, to the practitioner’s clients, to other licensed engineers of the practitioner’s profession, and to the practitioner to act at all times with,
ii) fidelity to public needs;
Fidelity – adherence to fact…
According to PEO Code of Ethics lying to the public is unethical thus VW as a corporate entity as well as responsible staff and executives were “unethical”. It is my opinion that if there were a PEO licensed professional in that group they would be subject to discipline as would be a firm with a Certificate..
Interesting thoughts. The holder of a Certificate might not always be aware of unethical or criminal activities, unless proven otherwise. My dictionary shows many definitions for FIDELITY as well, between others ‘LOYALTY’. It also shows ‘FACTUAL ACCURACY’. I like both, and all definitions. I still agree with Mr. Goodings however, that the VW case wouldn’t be simply classified as unethical, at least not in Ontario.
In my opinion a person or action can be unethical, criminal and unfair; unethical and unfair but not criminal; unethical but not unfair nor criminal; unfair but not unethical nor criminal, criminal and unfair but not unethical. One does not preclude the other. As a professional society we can judge on the ethical issue based on our Code of Ethics however criminal falls within other jurisdictions. Unethical, criminal and unfair behavior will also be judged by the public (market) regardless of the authorities.
I’m afraid, I might not be aware of all potential combinations of characteristics. However I do consider that para. 72(2)(j) of Section 72 of the Regulation – O. Reg. 941 to be a definition of what could be interpreted as both criminal and unethical. As I remember, there were overlapping areas between the Code of Ethics and Section 72.
Even VW believes that it was guilty of cheating are willing to pay a $1.4 Billion penalty .
Therefore none of us happy bloggers should refer to their act as being anything but cheating.
(See news announcement below)
“Volkswagen Agrees to $15 Billion Diesel-Cheating Settlement …
https://www.bloomberg.com/…/volkswagen-to-pay-14-7-billion-to-settle-u-s-emission…Jun 28, 2016 – VW, U.S. Agree to $14.7 Billion Emissions Settlement …. “
Dear Staff et al… The staff initiated blog on ETHICS has proven to be good one :
1. However I think that it should not drift into the subjects like …Walkerton, Elliot Lake etc…since they are either criminal and/or civil court matters…No one’s ethics were contested.
2. Not much can be settled in these discussions by Trying the perpetrators of these two unfortunate incidents in the Courts of Public Opinion because we do not have all of the facts to Try them fairly.
3. Each of us might even say to ourselves..” Except by the Grace of God, there go I, even though I believe that I always act and think ethically “.
4. Stick to ETHICAL issues…This has proven to be a fertile area for OSPE member personal opinions.
I agree that one should not form opinions with only partial information as that in itself could be a question of ethics. However one rarely has all the information and we do form opinions. The key is to recognize that our opinion is derived from the information we have been provided. Typically when stating an opinion we mean “this is my opinion based on the information available” with the last part remaining silent.
Back to ethics – rarely do you have all the information available to you when faced with an ethical question. You know your values, have an understanding of acceptable code of conduct of your peers and your perception of the circumstance. If you react too aggressively you expose yourself to later criticism, if you don’t react you may become part of the problem. That is why one should have predetermined guidelines, both corporate and personal
Here’s a test
Is it okay to buy a client/receive from supplier a coffee? a lunch? tickets to the game? golf vacation in Myrtle Beach? $10,000? job for a relative? Ignore a potential design/construction fault? Where’s your line? Where’s your line for a co-worker? Where’s your co-worker’s line for you?
I think what is really worth to draw attention to based on ‘rarely do you have all the information available to you’ is the fact that many times rarely do you have all the information available to you in writing. As it might have happened these days, some might be working along and having to catch up with the performance of robots and with leaders’ and client demands as general labourers, while working 70 hours a week for lengthy periods of time and along some, who might be already emotionally and / or mentally damaged. It seems, it would be unreasonable to ask that only written instructions be followed under such circumstances. What seems to be reasonable to me is, that a P.Eng under such circumstances would still contact ‘the proper authority’ properly, when his or her judgement would call, that it is necessary to do so in the public interest. Such authority sometimes might be the Ministry of Labour, for example. However as I understood, normally ‘Engineers have a duty when it is part of their job’. In other words one shouldn’t be asked to bite more than one can chew. One can stick to principles however, as much as he or she is capable of, mentally and physically.
My line is that it is not OK to give or receive more than a ‘nominal value’ item, or a collection of items of total ‘nominal value’. Last time I read about such at an award winning Fortune 500 corporation I think ‘nominal value’ meant $20. Of course before the recession, in 2008, and of course it wasn’t at a Canadian business. I think ‘nominal value’ also depends on the occasion, $20 might be too much if not for a specific occasion (holiday, anniversary etc). The question might become if the item was bought on sale, for example a $100 item purchased for $20. How would you deal with that? On the other hand: when dealing with a government agency in my opinion ‘nominal value’ = zero (0) dollars (in Canada). Employment opportunity for a relative wouldn’t be all right in professional circles, unless it would be considered that because remuneration of a professional employee was under any level of acceptance, that would make it OK. However even a professional volunteer (in my humble opinion) should be very alert and cautious about the developments leading to a relative accepting a job offer under such circumstance, even in the given economic conditions. A volunteer who represents a professional association should be able to stand against any form of scrutiny. That been said, in my humble opinion many might find themselves out of employment sooner or later if refused acceptance of an allusion to an employment offer in certain circles. Would you take the risk?
I think the answer lies with intent and opportunity. If there is an intent to influence or manipulate someone to provide you with an otherwise inappropriate benefit OR if that person has the opportunity to provide you with that benefit, there is an ethical concern. In some cases this could extend to “perceived” inappropriate benefit but this is a grey area. As to taking the risk – there may sometimes be a cost to sticking to principles. Maybe that’s what it means to be a Professional?
Yes Peter…I agree
‘intent to influence or manipulate’ includes to make the playing field uneven for other Consulting Engineering Competitors when seeking a target client’s next consulting engineering assignment by gift giving, sports outings etc. This can lead unfortunately to a ‘gift giving war’ among competing consulting firms . An unethical client may often spark such ‘wars’ just to seek and acquire for himself the booty of such ‘wars’.
I understand that one ‘assignment granting’ municipal officer in Ontario attended every single Blue Jays game but never more than once sat in the same seat. He had a whole suite of consultants and contractors who willingly ‘played’ his game and he made no effort to clandestinely ask for the favour.” It takes two to tango” someone once. remarked…
So, does that make it a “level playing field” if everyone is in on the game? First tickets, then tickets with lunch, then tickets with lunch and a room, then…?
I wonder if that is the way it all started in Montreal.
They say the only ones that complain are the jealous ones that don’t get to play (or go). I like to think, or hope, that some of us are simply ethical.
Hearing the overlooking report and incident of the water problem in Flint and how they have just turned a blind eye on water crisis of the state is really devastating. This kind of problem needs action and it shouldn’t have been taken lightly so that it didn’t worsen. Good thing there were the engineers that did their job well.