Ethics in Engineering

E5 2011

In class, we discussed the importance of professional ethics in guiding the choices that engineers make. See below for a compendium of ethics statements and case studies.

IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Code of Ethics
We, the members of the IEEE, in recognition of the importance of our technologies in affecting the quality of life throughout the world, and in accepting a personal obligation to our profession, its members and the communities we serve, do hereby commit ourselves to the highest ethical and professional conduct and agree:

  1. to accept responsibility in making engineering decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment; to avoid real or perceived conflicts of interest whenever possible, and to disclose them to affected parties when they do exist; to be honest and realistic in stating claims or estimates based on available data; to reject bribery in all its forms; to improve the understanding of technology, its appropriate application, and potential consequences; to maintain and improve our technical competence and to undertake technological tasks for others only if qualified by training or experience, or after full disclosure of pertinent limitations; to seek, accept, and offer honest criticism of technical work, to acknowledge and correct errors, and to credit properly the contributions of others; to treat fairly all persons regardless of such factors as race, religion, gender, disability, age, or national origin; to avoid injuring others, their property, reputation, or employment by false or malicious action;
  2. to assist colleagues and co-workers in their professional development and to support them in following this code of ethics.

ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) Code of Ethics of Engineers

The Fundamental Principles

Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the engineering profession by:

  1. Using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare; Being honest and impartial, and serving with fidelity the public, their employers and clients; and
  2. Striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession.

The Fundamental Canons

  1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties. Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers and shall provide opportunities for the professional and ethical development of those engineers under their supervision. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest. Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others. Engineers shall associate only with reputable persons or organizations. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
  2. Engineers shall consider environmental impact in the performance of their professional duties.

ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) Code of Ethics

Fundamental Principles

Engineers uphold and advance the integrity, honor and dignity of the engineering profession by:

  1. using their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare and the environment; being honest and impartial and serving with fidelity the public, their employers and clients; striving to increase the competence and prestige of the engineering profession; and
  2. supporting the professional and technical societies of their disciplines.

Fundamental Canons

  1. Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties. Engineers shall perform services only in areas of their competence. Engineers shall issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner. Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees, and shall avoid conflicts of interest. Engineers shall build their professional reputation on the merit of their services and shall not compete unfairly with others. Engineers shall act in such a manner as to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, and dignity of the engineering profession.
  2. Engineers shall continue their professional development throughout their careers, and shall provide opportunities for the professional development of those engineers under their supervision.

Case Studies

The following case studies were taken from web sites at: see also for general essays on engineering ethics

Case 1: Code Violations with Safety Implications

Metzler, an engineer, is hired to confirm the structural integrity of an apartment building that Metzler's client, Smith, is going to sell. According to an agreement with Smith, Metzler will keep the report confidential. Smith makes it clear to Metzler that the building is being sold in its present condition without any further repairs or renovations.Metzler determines that the building is structurally sound, but Smith confides to Metzler that violations of electrical and mechanical Engineering codes do exist. While Metzler is not an electrical or mechanical engineer, he realizes that the problems could result in injury and informs Smith of this fact. In the report, Metzler briefly mentions the conversation with Smith about these deficiencies, but he does not report the violations to a third party.Were Metzler's obligations to Smith fulfilled? What about Metzler's professional responsibility for public safety? Is there any information not supplied that would make an important difference in your judgment?

Case 2: The Co-op Student

Project leader Bruce Barton was being sorely pressed to complete the development of several engineering prototypes for a field test of a new appliance model for the XYZ company. One particular plastic component of the new model had given difficulty in laboratory tests as it failed repeatedly before reaching the stress level necessary for successful operation. Bruce had directed a redesign of the component using a tough new engineering plastic recommended by the Research Laboratory's Material Science Department. Stress tests needed to be run on the redesigned component, but Bruce was running short of time and needed to get on with building the prototype. Bruce sought out the manager of the Material Science Department for help in running stress tests on samples of the new component. With this assistance he could go ahead with prototype building and conduct the tests concurrently. The prototypes, of course, would not be released to field test until the stress tests on the redesigned component proved its design to be satisfactory. Tom Mason, manager of the Material Science Department, was willing to assist because he knew how critical completion of the development was to XYZ's future appliance plans. However, this was also a busy time for Tom's department. So, Tom suggested to Bruce that he could assign the test work to one of the engineering co-op students. Tom was also coordinator of engineering co-op students, and he liked to use the co-op students in demanding situations to give them practical experience.Tom assigned the test work to Jack Jacobs, an engineering co-op student from the State University who was completing his second work session at XYZ. Jack was familiar with the test equipment and previously had done similar test work. Jack was a good student and his co-op work had been usually well done. Tom commented to Jack that he would need to work diligently to complete the tests before he had to return to State University. Jack completed the tests on schedule and turned in a report to Tom indicating the component had successfully passed the stress tests. Upon completion of the test report Jack returned to the university for his next school session. Tom gave Bruce the good news. The prototypes were completed and the field test of these prototypes got underway on schedule. A few weeks later, Bruce rushed into Tom's office to tell him that most of the prototypes were out of operation because of a catastrophic failure of the component that had been tested in Tom's lab. Bruce wanted to discuss the test immediately with Jack; but since Jack had already returned to the university, he and Tom settled for studying Jack's lab notebook in detail. After review Tom said, "Bruce, I hate to say it but these data look too good. I know the equipment and there should be more scatter in the measurements Jack took. I think some, if not all, these measurements are in error or they have been faked! At best, Jack probably took a few points and 'extrapolated' the rest!" What ethical issues, if any, does this scenario raise? Bruce and Tom made plans to run all the tests again. Meanwhile, Tom phoned Dr. Frank Thompson, Co-op Coordinator at State University, to discuss his fear that Jack had falsified data. In the course of the conversation he asked Dr. Thompson if any effort was made to discuss professional ethics with co-op students before their first work session and if the importance and value of engineering test results were stressed to these students. Dr. Thompson explained that no specific instruction on professional ethics was given to co-op students, but all lab courses emphasized the need for accuracy in data taking. Dr. Thompson added that he found it hard to believe that a co-op student would "fake" data! Was it appropriate for Tom to discuss his concerns about Jack with the university's Co-op Coordinator prior to discussing the matter with Jack? Should Tom have a conversation with Jack about his concerns? If so, what type of conversation should Tom have with Jack when he talks with him? Should he refuse to have Jack return to XYZ as a co-op student?

Case 3: Job Search

Gerald Wahr was not prepared for such a sudden turn of events. He was scheduled to complete his degree in chemical engineering in June. He planned to return to help his parents run the family farm right after graduation. However, in early May his father, Hans Wahr, became seriously ill, and it was evident he would be hospitalized for an extended period of time. Gerald's mother and his older brother could continue to run the farm. But the medical bills would quickly mount. Without an additional source of income, the family would soon begin defaulting on its mortgage payments. The best hope for saving the farm would be for Gerald to find employment as an engineer. Since Gerald had expected to return to the farm, he already missed many opportunities for job interviews. He would have to work quickly. After an intensive search, only one solid opportunity surfaced. Pro-Growth Pesticides, Inc. would be on campus next week to interview candidates for a supervisory job requiring a degree in chemical engineering. Gerald certainly seems well qualified for the job. However, there is a hitch. The Wahr farm uses strictly organic methods. Gerald's father had always opposed the use of pesticides on their farm. In fact, he was rather outspoken about this among the farmers in the area. Gerald admired this in his father. As a young child he often proudly announced that he wanted to grow up to be just like his father. Hans Wahr, however, had different ideas about this. A high school dropout, Hans advised young Gerald to further his education. "Without a college degree," he told Gerald, "you'll be as ineffective as I am. You have to fight fire with fire. If you really want to show those pesticide folks a thing or two, you've got to be able to talk their language." So, Gerald decided he would go to college and study chemical engineering. Gerald's study of chemical engineering did nothing to shake his conviction that organic farming is best. Quite the contrary. He is now more convinced than ever that the pesticide industry is not only harming the environment generally, but farm products in particular. Should Gerald go for the interview? Discuss. At first Gerald rejects the idea of going for the interview. He thinks of it as a matter of integrity. How could he work for a company that researches, produces, and markets the very products he and his family have so long opposed? However, his friends counsel him otherwise. Here are some of their arguments. How might Gerald respond to them? Allen: Look, if you don't go for the job, someone else will. The job won't go away just because you stay away. So, the work's going to be done anyway. Your refusing the job won't change a thing.Bob: Right! Furthermore, you need to look at this from a utilitarian point of view--the greatest good for the greatest number. If you don't go for the job, someone else who really believes in pesticides will--and that's going to make things even worse! If you take the job and aren't gung ho, that might just slow things down a little.Don: Besides, you might be able to introduce a few reforms from the inside. That won't kill the pesticide industry, but it might make it a little bit better--certainly better than if some zealous pesticide nut takes the job.Allen: So, it's pretty clear what to do. All things considered, you ought to go for the job. It's your only real chance to save the farm; and if someone else gets the job, Pro-Growth will cause even more harm. You can't be a purist about these things. It's not a perfect world, you know.Gerald Wahr is uncomfortable during the interview, but it seems to be going rather well. However, the interviewer then asks: "There are a lot of people who disapprove of the use of pesticides in farming. Of course, Pro-Growth disagrees. What are your thoughts about the use of pesticides?" How should Gerald answer this question? Gerald Wahr's situation may seem extreme. However, it does raise important questions about job choices. To what extent should one be concerned about whether there is a good match between one's basic ethical commitments and job selection? What kinds of engineering related jobs, if any, would you decline because of ethical concerns?

Case 4: An Excess?

Stephanie Simon knew Environmental Manager Adam Baines would not be pleased with her report on the chemical spill. The data clearly indicated that the spill was large enough that regulations required it to be reported to the state. Stephanie perceived Adam to be someone who thinks industry is over-regulated, especially in the environmental area. At the same time, he prided himself as a major player in maintaining XYZ's public reputation as an environmental leader in the chemical industry. "We do a terrific job," he often said. "And we don't need a bunch of hard to read, difficult to interpret, easily misunderstood state regulations to do it. We got along just fine before the regulators ran wild, and we're doing fine now." When Stephanie presented her report to Adam, he lost his temper. "This is ridiculous! We're not going to send anything like this to the state. A few gallons over the limit isn't worth the time it's going to take to fill out those damned forms. I can't believe you'd submit a report like this. Stephanie, go back to your desk and rework those numbers until it comes out right. I don't want to see any more garbage like this." What should Stephanie do? Stephanie refused to rework the report. Instead she went back to her desk, signed the report, wrote a memo about her conversation with Adam, and then returned to Adam's office. She handed him the report and said, "You don't want to see any more garbage like this? Neither do I. Here's my original report--signed, sealed, and delivered. I've had it here. I'm not fudging data for anyone." As she turned to leave, she added, "By the way, Adam, before you get any ideas about making it hard for me to get another job, I have a nice little memo about our earlier conversation. I won't hesitate to send it right upstairs at the slightest provocation." Discuss Stephanie's way of handling this problem. Bruce Bennett was pleased to have the job vacated by Stephanie Simon. It was an advancement in both responsibility and pay. He knew about the circumstances of Stephanie's angry departure. All went well for the first several months. Then there was another spill. Bruce's preliminary calculations indicated that the spill exceeded the specified limit requiring a report to the state. He also knew how Adam would react to the "bad news". Bruce had worked hard to get his present position, and he looked forward to "moving up the ladder" at XYZ. He certainly did not want to go job hunting at this time in his career. He thought, "These numbers are so close to falling below the limit that a little 'rounding off' here or there might save us all a lot of grief." What should Bruce do? Imagine how the above situations would be evaluated from the following perspectives:

To what extent do you think Stephanie, Bruce, and Adam should take into consideration these perspectives in determining what their responsibilities are?

Case 5: The Case of the Ford Pinto

In the early 1970's when competition from Japan's auto makers was heating up, gas prics were easing, the demands for energy conservation were just around the corner (awaiting the Arab oil boycotts that arrived first in 1973-74), Ford Motor Company with Lee Iacocca as its president, introduced a new line of cars, the Ford Pinto. The Pinto was to cost less than $2,000 and weigh less that 2,000 pounds. During crash tests which preceded the introduction of the Pinto to the public, it became apparent that the vehicle had a dangerous design flaw. The gas tank was so designed and located that when it was involved in a rear end collision at an impact speed of 20mph or higher, the tank was apt to rupture, causing a fire or explosion. The tank was only five inches forward of the rear sheet metal of the body and only three inches back of the rear axle housing. In not just one, but most of the rear-end crash tests, the axle housing deformed the tank and sharp, protruding bolts punctured the tank. In only 20 mph moving barrier crashes, the rear end crush distance was large--more than eight inches. Ford's conclusion, following the crash tests, was that the rear end structure of the car was not satisfactory because of several types of damage deformation of the gas tank, leakage and damage to the filler pipe. Suggested changes to repair the defects were not expensive, something in the range of $11 per car. A confidential company policy memo issued in late 1971, directed that no additional safety features be adopted for the 1973 and later cars until required by law.

A cost-benefit analysis prepared by Ford concluded that it was not cost-effecient to add an $11 per car cost in order to correct the flaws. Benefits derived from spending this amount of money were esteimated to be $49.5 million. This estimate assumed that each death which could be avoided would be worth $200,000, that each major burn injury that could be avoided would be worth $67,000 and that an average repair cost of $700 per car involved in a rear end accident would be avoided. It further assumed that there would be 2,100 burned vehicles, 180 serious burn injuries, and 180 burn deaths in making this calculation. When the unit cost was spread out over the number of cars and light trucks which would be affected by the design change, at a cost of $11 per vehicle, the cost was calculated to be $137 million, much greater then the $49.5 million benefit.

Case 6: Microwave ovens

After completing your undergraduate engineering degree, you are hired by Kitchen Appliances, Inc. (KAI), a company that manufactures microwave ovens and other time-saving kitchen appliances. Your first task is to test a series of microwave ovens to determine their defrosting capabilities. In your lab, you find a few dozen microwave ovens in their boxes. Every brand of microwave oven is there, including all of the competetors' brands.

You unpack all of the microwave ovens and begin your tests. As you wait for test items to defrost, you begin to dig through the cabinets in your lab. You discover that the lab was previously used to test microwave oven doors for radiation permeability (the amount of radiation that escapes through the glass door of the ovens). You find a piece of hand-held equipment that apparently was used to measure radiation levels. You can't resist trying it out.

You switch on the meter and point it around the room. You notice that when you point it at some of the microwave ovens, it give a very high reading. You turn off all the other ovens and discover that the reading is not a fluke. The ovens you are standing in front of are emitting much higher than average levels of radiation. You discover that one of the ovens is from KAI and the other is from a competitor. These microwave ovens are currently the best-selling ovens on the market, perhaps because they are the least expensive. It appears that these bargain ovens may not be as safe as they seem.

You decide to look around a little more. You find the test report that discusses the radiation emissions from all of KAI's models of microwave ovens. You learn that only the top of the line and the mid-level models were tested. The results from the bargain ovens apparently were extrapolated from the test results on the other ovens. What should you do?