Monday, February 16, 2015
Would Licensed Engineers Make Workplaces Safer?
Joe Carson is a licensed professional engineer (PE) with three decades of experience as a federal employee whose job involved responsibility for nuclear safety. He is also an activist and whistleblower who has devoted much of his time in recent years to problems with safety and accountability in the engineering profession. Joe recently sent me a couple of articles that, taken together, raise an interesting question: if engineers working in U. S. industries had to have PE licenses, could they raise the level of workplace safety?
The first article reports that the U. S. government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently levied $1.7 million in fines against Ashley Furniture for numerous safety violations and injuries in its large plant in Arcadia, Wisconsin. OSHA says about 4,500 people are employed at the facility, making it probably one of the largest furniture factories in the U. S. But Ashley's Arcadia plant doesn't seem to be a safe place to work. OSHA says that Ashley's plant workers have suffered over 1,000 injuries in three and a half years, and have placed the firm in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program. A spokesman for Ashley disputes the allegations and calls the fines "grossly inappropriate and overzealous."
In some countries, engineers cannot work in their profession at all without obtaining a PE license or equivalent from a government agency. In turn, the government can hold licensed engineers responsible for ethics-related performance, such as the safety of products manufactured, and even for the safety of employees who work at a plant under the engineer's supervision, broadly defined. There is an entire specialty called manufacturing engineering which is devoted to the efficient—and safe—design of manufacturing facilities. If U. S. manufacturing engineers had to have PE licenses in order to work in private industries, and the terms of their licenses spelled out minimum safety standards that facilities they designed had to meet, it stands to reason that with their jobs on the line, manufacturing engineers would pay a lot of attention to workplace safety in facilities they were responsible for.
So why isn't that the case in the U. S.? Because of a little-known set of laws collectively known as the "industrial exemption." Back in the 1930s when engineering societies began to lobby state legislatures to enact PE licensing laws, corporate manufacturing and industrial interests got wind of this and inserted industrial exemptions into the laws in many states. The effect of these exemptions is to exempt firms that are basically big enough to look out for themselves from having to hire only licensed engineers. Some states without industrial exemptions nevertheless do not enforce the licensing of all engineers. The history of PE licensing and regulation is complicated, but the results are simple enough to summarize: unless you practice engineering as a direct service to the general public (as in a consulting firm), or work for a government agency engaged in public works such as roads and bridges, you generally do not have to hold a PE license to work in the engineering field.
In his fair-minded way, Joe also sent me another article, this one on the question of whether state licensing laws have gone too far. The recent rise of unlicensed taxi-equivalent private services such as Uber has raised the issue of whether we really need to license professions such as hair-braiding and interior decorating. The arguments in favor of professional licensing made by trade groups usually start from the premise that the public needs protection from untrained amateurs who don't know what they're doing. Consequently, the state has an interest in licensing X profession, and the licensing process typically requires a minimum amount of training and certification for the licensee. With such training, the public can now rest assured that a licensed practitioner of X knows what he or she is doing, and certain dire consequences, ranging from mis-braided hair to clashing colors in your living room, can be avoided.
I let myself go a little there at the end of that paragraph, but the basic point is sound in some cases. Everyone wants licensing for highly trained professionals in life-critical jobs such as surgeons and airline pilots, because the negative consequences of error in these professions are so obvious. Critics of state licensing laws counter that while licensing can raise the standards of performance in a profession, it can also restrict entry and create a seller's market for the profession's services. This lets licensed members of the profession make more money, but arguably leads to more expensive services that are not always better, as numerous studies comparing services in states with and without particular licensing laws have shown.
If the industrial exemptions went away and states began aggressively enforcing PE licensing for all engineers, we would certainly see a spike in engineering salaries for licensed engineers. There would also be a rush to get PE licenses, which usually take years to obtain for undergraduate engineers, who can only get "EIT" (Engineer In Training) status immediately after passing an initial exam, and then must accumulate some years of experience before applying for a full license.
As to whether products and workplaces would be safer, that would depend on whether safety requirements were built into the licensing laws, as I described above. Currently, that is not the case, although as a matter of principle, engineers at facilities such as Ashley Furniture ought to consider workplace safety more than they apparently do at present, license or no license. If no engineer would work for a firm out of fear of losing his or her license, it would apply a novel kind of pressure that would encourage such organizations to clean up their act safety-wise. But it would also turn licensed engineers into a sort of government agent, a role that many might find uncomfortable, to say the least.
I thank Joe Carson for bringing this issue to my attention, and I hope that engineers responsible for workplace safety, including those at Ashley Furniture, will follow Joe's example of holding safety paramount above profit, promotion, and even one's job, whether or not licensing laws are changed.
Sources: Joe Carson sent me notice of the New York Times articles "OSHA Cites Ashley Furniture Over Dozens of Safety Violations" at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/business/osha-cites-ashley-furniture-for-dozens-of-safety-violations.html
and "Job Licenses in Spotlight as Uber Rises" at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/28/business/economy/ubers-success-casts-doubt-on-many-job-licenses.html. You can read more about Joe Carson and his work at http://www.carsonversusdoe.com. For the history of PE licensing, I referred to an article by Neil Norman on the National Society of Professional Engineers website at http://www.nspe.org/sites/default/files/resources/pdfs/blog/industry_exemptions-neil_norman.pdf. I last blogged about PE licensing on April 13, 2013 at