Monday, January 31, 2011

Readers Respond to Poll on Real Engineering Ethics Problems

Two weeks ago I asked readers to send me stories about authentic engineering ethics problems they have run into. Numerically, the response was not overwhelming (I think I got three replies), but all of them were worth reading. And one reader in particular (who has requested anonymity) came back with several stories that made the whole effort worthwhile.

One reader in Australia noted the conflict between natural resources and farmland, on the one hand, and the needs of extractive industries such as mining, petroleum, and lumber on the other hand. Australia, with its proximity to the increasing demands of developing Asian countries such as China for raw materials, faces this problem in an especially pointed way, although it is truly a global issue.

Another reader points out that while engineering codes of ethics usually consider the needs of the public at large as well as the client, some clients actively oppose an engineer’s efforts to abide by environmental regulations and other public protections.

But the prize goes to the third response I received from a former engineer who is now in academia. Out of several rather hair-raising stories that he sent in, I will summarize just one.

The engineer in question worked for a large firm with overseas customers. One large project originated in the sales department, progressed through sales engineers, applications engineers, and moved on to the regular engineering staff. One of the engineers there noted that there was a paperwork error in the specifications. If the product was made as specified, it would lead to a hazardous situation and it could kill or maim people horribly. Accordingly, the engineer sent back the project and asked for the error to be corrected. The sales people denied the request, not once but several times. After one more try at getting the error corrected, the firm’s client company overseas sent their project manager (essentially a customer of the firm) to the firm’s offices and they held a meeting with him. The client-manager from overseas closed the conference room door and chewed out the engineers up one side and down the other, reminded them that they’d signed a contract, threatened lawsuits, and said either they should build the unsafe product as is or face a “total company shut-down.” I quote from the email: “At one point, the project manager tried to convince us of the trifling nature of the problem since the only people likely to be hurt were third-world village ‘a--holes’ whose widows would get wonderful government pensions if the worst happened.”

It turned out that the reason the overseas project manager was so insistent on keeping the mistake in the plans, was that he was operating under either national or corporate rules in his country which prohibited the alteration of a single project document once bidding was over. If anything was changed, the whole project would have to be rebid, and things would probably get delayed for years.

After much hair-pulling, the firm’s management decided to deliver all the project documentation without the signature of a single engineer. Instead, all the documents came with letters warning that the product was not safe for use unless a simple change was made, and described the change needed to make the project safe. Since the firm itself wasn’t building the product (the overseas client was), technically the firm wouldn’t be liable for injuries to the same degree, but even with all the warnings, the experience left many of the firm’s engineers with sleepless nights.

This story teaches valuable lessons on several levels. For one thing, it shows how cultural differences are an increasing factor in modern engineering work. The cavalier attitude shown by the overseas project manager toward the people likely to be hurt if the product failed was not shared by the U. S. engineers, to say the least. The conflict between sales staff, who wanted simply to get the sale, and engineering staff, who wanted the product to be safe, is a perennial one, but in my experience simply comes with the territory. The way the firm resolved the situation was perhaps one of the least bad solutions, but when a client refuses to accept the best solution and threatens to ruin your firm, sometimes the best solution simply won’t work. One hopes along with the engineers involved that the client firm took the advice and made the added change to improve product safety. But at some level, all such interactions rest on trust, and all the documents in the world will not prevent an unscrupulous contractor or construction worker from doing something wrong.

You can also question the wisdom of a rule that prevents the slightest alteration in documents after the bidding process is over. Some rules are implemented with ulterior motives. In any complex project, certain changes simply come up when on-the-ground reality collides with the engineering paperwork. And reasonable contract rules and laws recognize this fact. In my very limited experience with U. S. construction practices (limited to sitting in on one construction contracting class), an allowance for after-bid changes is made and rules are set up to implement these changes fairly and with adequate notification for all parties involved. I suspect that the overseas law about no changes in the documents after the bid may have been implemented by a government whose friends in high places wanted a loophole through which to funnel business their way. In the event that any documents are changed after a bidding process, this would allow a corrupt government to keep fiddling with the bids until its buddies got the business, while staying within the letter of the law. That is only speculation on my part, but I can’t imagine any other reason for such a rigid and unrealistic rule.

I thank all the readers for sending in their ideas. The National Institute for Engineering Ethics movie project will probably be ongoing for the next several years, so any time you have ideas along these lines, please send them in, either in a comment on the blog or directly to my email at kdstephan(atsign)

1 comment:

  1. One reason for "rigid and unrealistic rules" is ideological certainty, something not limited to Asian countries. If you spend time at space-related websites (Rand Samberg's "Extraterrestrial Musings" or Jeff Foust's "Space Politics" or Keith Cowling's "NasaWatch" for example) you'll soon notice the majority of comments come from libertarians who are ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that almost every problem with the US space program stems from NASA's eagerness to sign cost-plus contracts with its supppliers instead of insisting on fixed-prices. Libertarians just know that when you start monkeying with what should be a done deal that you're opening up the door to corruption. And it drives them straight up the walls!