Position Paper: Importance of the Code of Ethics for Engineers
The Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) value accountability, respect, integrity, professionalism and teamwork  and hold their members to a high standard as they represent the field of engineering in their work. The Professional Engineers Act of Ontario regulates the standards and engineering practices for the province and includes a statutory mandate to protect the public interest where engineering is concerned . The Act was created in 1922 and is tasked with maintaining a Code of Ethics that as future Professional Engineers we will be required to follow. Section 77.2.i of the code, states that “A practitioner shall regard the practitioner’s duty to public welfare as paramount” . For all disciplines of engineering, the work we do affects the public and their safety, either directly or indirectly, and we are therefore required to put their health and wellness first.
Before new engineers are eligible to apply for Professional Engineering status they graduate from their undergraduate degree with a ring ceremony. This ceremony, referred to as the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, directs newly qualified engineers toward the consciousness of their profession and its social significance . The iron ring, worn on the little finger of their working hand, signifies pride in your profession while reminding the wearer of their humility. The ring serves as a reminder to live by a high standard of professional conduct  and as it rests on the page when signing off on professional documents, its significance should not be taken lightly.
The Professional Engineers Act, the Code of Ethics, and the iron ring all serve to protect the public by creating performance guidelines and standards and reminding working engineers of the importance of their attention to detail. In my opinion, section 77.2.i of the code is one of the most important as it can be easy to get distracted by other aspects of the job such as deadlines, costs, and pressures and what needs to come first is public safety. If a building is constructed, an electric circuit is implemented, a code is written for an autonomous system, or a chemical compound is created, any of which will be used by the public, it is our responsibility to ensure that every possible precaution has been taken to avoid any injuries or deaths to those exposed. Engineering in general is a precise science and the highest safety standards must always be adhered to. There have been many noteworthy engineering disasters in the past and it is our duty to learn from those mistakes, consign the events to history, and continue to make things safer and prevent more accidents in the future.
One of the most disastrous engineering failures in history is Chernobyl. The nuclear plant exploded in 1986 after plant operators violated technical specifications during an experiment to test a new reactor cooling procedure to be used in an emergency . The operators ran the plant at very low power, without taking extra precautions, making the reactors very unstable. This test was pushed forward by the Deputy Chief Engineer who went against protocol regardless of objections by operators on staff that night. The reactors were not appropriately cooled, and the power output accelerated. This led to an uncontrollable power surge destroying one of the reactors, shattered fuel tubes and caused a steam explosion . The reactor’s core was exposed to the environment and deadly radioactive material escaped, contaminating up to 17 million people. This disaster could have been avoided if the proper process controls were in place and the operators had received adequate training . It is catastrophic errors like this that we need to learn from and feel the weight of in order to take our profession seriously. When there are human lives involved, even the smallest tasks can make a difference.
The Code of Ethics, and ‘ethics’ more generally, is a set of moral principles to be followed, an outline of what is right and wrong. Most sections of the code seem like common sense to most, as they are thoughts and actions that most people would deem immoral without obligation and would not consider doing. However, they are written in the code specifically so that there can be no question as to what is expected of an engineer in practice. For section 77.2.i, when it brings the welfare of the public into the code, this should be a very obvious statement for anyone reading it. Morally, none of us should be doing anything at any time that we know could be harmful to another. Even though this seems apparent in everyday life, for it to be enforceable in the workplace it must be in the code. Therefore, if your profession expects that you meet the public’s needs and provides you with the authority to make decisions on the building of structures, delivery of power or operation of a machine, for example, a statement imposing the protection of public health and safety is necessary.
Professional engineers generate products that create wealth and overall economic benefit to society, but also have the potential to cause harm to the public if incorrect decisions are made . The PEO is the regulatory body in the province for the Professional Engineers Act and therefore the Code of Ethics. The governing members are trained individuals who together, after a formal hearing, decide if there has been professional misconduct. It is the obligation of the PEO to not only define the regulations and ethics which the engineers must follow, but also to ensure that their members are held to those defined standards. Section 72.2.g of the Act states that “Professional misconduct means a breach of the Act or regulations, other than an action that is solely a breach of the code of ethics . Persons or companies found to have failed to comply with sections of the Act are disciplined appropriately. However, the Code of Ethics is not enforceable on its own as moral are subject to opinion and there is no clear lines of right vs wrong. Section 77.2.i regarding public welfare is covered by other sections of the Act, such as 72.2.c, 78.1, 33.1.4 and 52.3.e, all of which are considered professional misconduct, and is therefore reprimandable. The enforceability of the Act ensures that members who fail to maintain the expected standards of practice are subject to an objective disciplinary process that will determine whether there has been a failure to meet the prescribed standards .
The following is a summary of an example of a P.Eng. facing consequences due to professional misconduct which put public safety at risk. The accused member, Waldemar M Widla (Widla) was a professional engineer holding a certificate of authorization working for Fulton Engineered Specialties Inc (FESI) completing structural engineering tasks. FESI worked together with other engineering firms to install a solar panel array on the roof of a building partly owned by Widla. Under the agreement, FESI was responsible for providing and installing the attachment plates for pull-out force that were supposed to be in accordance with the structural design completed by another company. The building was sold in the middle of the project and Widla was notified that the building permit was still outstanding. A letter was required by a professional engineer confirming that the solar panel work required to be done was in accordance with the structural drawings. Widla signed and sealed a letter from FESI stating that all work completed followed the issued drawings. In fact, Widla had not inspected the work nor did he inspect the drawings. After the building sold it was discovered that Widla’s statements had been false and despite being advised that the work was not completed as required he took no steps to correct or amend the work or the letter. Widla and FESI were found guilty of professional misconduct for signing and sealing a letter to a building official that failed to make reasonable provisions for the safeguarding of life, health or property of a person who may be affected by the work. Widla’s licence and FESI’s certificate of authorization were suspended as a result.
I find this section of the code an easy one to conform to as it fits in-line with my personal morals and standards. My past work experiences have also been in line with the ethics outlined in the Act and have therefore been positive work environments to be a part of. I spent 5 years working as a Health and Safety Specialist for JAtech Services, owned and operated by Jay Armstrong. Jay is an engineering technologist specializing in machinery vibration and diagnostic testing. He believes that “going home safely at the end of the day is the most important aspect of any job”. As a company completing non-invasive mechanical testing on equipment the work is not considered high risk in comparison with the industry standard, however there is always room for human error. Jay believes that “as much as work safety can be pushed on the job site and during training, it comes down to how safe each individual plans to work each day”. It is easy to be distracted on the job, but it is just as easy to focus on what you are doing in a critical situation and make smart choices. As a future engineer I believe these statements hold true whether someone works with their hands or spends their work days in an office. Each and every time a decision or calculation is made health and safety concerns must come first. Mark Baird, P.Eng. believes “A professional engineer seeks to apply their sound moral reasoning, technical competency, communication ability, and ethical behavior to all situations they are faced with, both on and off the clock. I will know that I am truly a professional engineer when other people see me as someone who possesses those traits”. Mark works in the manufacturing industry and considers himself lucky to be part of an organization that holds its members accountable for their actions.
I completed two co-operative summer student positions with London Hydro and was very interested to lean how large a role public welfare played in this profession. Of course, in regards to potential contact with live circuits public safety was the number one priority. However, even smaller tasks such as removing a retired hydro pole involved numerous safety standards in place to not only protect the workers but also the public. Standards on how to place traffic cones around a stopped vehicle depending on the work and type of road, standards on the height and amount of fencing required around a hole that would be left open between work hours, etc. There was always consideration for how long people would be without power during a scheduled or incidental outage as summer and winter conditions can put people without power at risk.
Ethical behaviour is crucial in the workplace as an engineer. Safety is closely related to ethical behaviour, and part of our duty as an engineer is to ensure the safety of civilians with everything we do and create. Safety is the number one priority at almost any workplace, so it should take priority over anything. I personally think that this is one of the most important part of our code, mainly that people should not be afraid to stick up for what they think is right. It is part of our humanity to feel guilty when we notice something does not abide by our standards or morals, and we will feel guilty if we do not do what it is right. As hard as it may be to go against what others are saying, it is so important to make sure that everything with my signature on it is something I am proud of and something that I know will not jeopardize society. The main thing that must be kept up in my career is that remaining ethical is not a static issue. It requires review and evaluation. Companies need to periodically review their priorities and make necessary adjustments. Otherwise, their standards and training become obsolete.
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