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Engineering and Ethics: Honest Designs for Safety and Good Health

By Dick Weisinger

The National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics states:

“As members of this profession, engineers are expected to exhibit the highest standards of honesty and integrity… The services provided by engineers require honesty, impartiality, fairness, and equity, and must be dedicated to the protection of the public health, safety, and welfare. Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct.”

The public holds engineers in high regard. A Gallup poll in 2019 found that two-thirds of the public rate the ethical standards of engineers as high or very high.

Nearly every minute of the day everyone of us is surrounded by buildings, transportation, electronics, and many other types of devices and objects that were designed and manufactured by engineers. We trust that the engineers who created this world around us did so in an ethical manner, one where safety and public health were considered the most important part of their work.

Engineering failures, like the collapse of the Surfside Florida condominium last year, the collapse of the New Orlean’s Levee System during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, or the Ford Pinto fuel tank design flaw in the 1970’s, are all examples of what can go wrong when poor decisions or miscommunication are made, or worse, when engineering decisions are influenced by greed, corruption, indifference, or negligence.

It is likely that factors like cost and time constraints with a dose of negligence rank among the highest reasons for why products and structures fail. Engineering designs often include trade-off decisions, like the balancing of project cost against safety and long-term durability. To properly design, engineers often need to see a bigger picture of how the component or part that they design and build will be used and integrated into a larger system. They also need to try to peer into the future to see how the environment in which their design functions could possibly change in the future, for reasons like climate change.

An article by journalists for The Conversation in Techxplore, wrote “engineers must embrace ethics in a way that previous generations embraced mathematics. Complex societal problems make much greater demands on engineering thinking than in the past. We need to consider whole and complex systems, not just issues as individual challenges.”

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