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Ethics 101

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SEAOC Professional Engineers -

You may have been lucky to have good legal and ethical advice,
and a career unmarred by troubling ethical situations. Sadly,
my engineering education never included this ethics course.

Oh, there was CAE and FEM/BEM & geotechnical, but no ethics.

So as my practice expands, I encounter strange and bizarre
(to me) business situations, and I'm always left wondering
what I should have done.

Here are five situational ethics problems drawn from real life.

* * * 

**1. A national chemical company contracts with you to
perform a forensic analysis of their reactor building which is
shedding its cladding. You find a 1920's riveted steel moment
frame in tbe narrow direction, an unreinforced cladding-shear
system in the long direction, and vertical, elevated, riveted
1930's pressure reactors containing corrosive chemicals.

The results of your seismic analysis, Zone 3, are that the
building and reactors will in all probability become plastic
during a Code event; and with a dynamic solution, will move in
differing harmonic-modes, and fail catastrophically by directly
impacting with each other.

The owner takes your report, shelves it, discontinuing any 
further communication.

The reactor building is located downtown in a small working
community, immediately adjacent to a natural gas-powered steam
plant. The "emergency" system is a single siren atop one of the 
chemical plant buildings.

Q: What is your responsibility to notify the State Board of your
conclusions? What is your responsibility to notify Emergency
Planning of your conclusions? As a (former) consultant to the
chemical plant Owner, what is your obligation to keep silent?

**2. The real estate developers of a local "historical" 
district come to you for structural advice for renovation of a
series of 1890-1920's four and five-story masonry; masonry-timber;
pencil-rod "reinforced" "concrete" (with sea sand aggregate that
cores out below 2000 psi); no-column capital column-and-slab
with 3 groundfloor-sides store-front; and so on.

The results of your careful analyses to Zone 3 Code seismic
loads is that the buildings will fail catastrophically without
structural rehabilitation.

The real estate developers secure "grandfathering" from the
Building Official, and complete their renovation work using
some plywood shear walls, repointing the masonry without wall
ties, and nice "energy-compliant" windows. You don't get paid.

The buildings are occupied by oblivious tenants who have no
idea of these events.

Q: What is your responsibility to notify the State Board of 
your conclusions? What is your responsibility to notify 
Emergency Planning of your conclusions? As an (unpaid) consultant
to the Agent(s), what is your obligation to keep silent?

**3. An international shipping company contacts you through
a contract agency inquiring re your availability to lead a 
design team for a major warehouse building project in a State
where you hold licensure. Talks fail, you have other work.

Two months later, the shipping company contacts you again 
through agency, offering an all-expenses paid TWO-DAY trip
to their headquarters to review and stamp the design plans.

You decline their offer, telling the agent you are outraged
that they would pass on that offer. They profess ignorance,
suggesting you "just talk with the company". Talks fail.

Q: What is your responsibility to notify the Board of this 
"rubber-stamping" solicitation? As a consultant, NOT employed
by the Owner, what is your obligation to keep silent?

**4. A west-coast trucking company sets up an inspection 
business, calling themselves "XYZ Engineering Corporation".
You obtain a copy of their promotion video tape, in which they
enthusiastically show how they certify their own inspectors
with an in-house training, and work in the municipal sector
making engineering evaluations, writing corrosion reports,
and providing public works departments with proprietary bid
specifications for the work which only they can meet with their
equipment. At the end of the video, they show themselves making
emergency repairs that violate existing NSF standards, and even
include a few testimonials from public works directors whom
they are alleged to have worked for.

The company is owned and operated by a non-technical husband-
wife team and is NOT registered as an engineering corporation.

Q: What is your responsibility to notify the Board of this 
"false engineering" practice? As a practicing consultant, but
NOT employed by the Public Works Deparments, what is your 
obligation to keep silent and not warn them of this fraud?

**5. A local architect contacts you in a big jam. His design 
for a local public building has run into construction 
difficulties, the unusual roof has sagged measurably, and
everyone is pointing the finger at him. Big-time lawsuit on
the horizon. You accept the assignment and make a field 
inspection which shows the roof is sagging more than l/180, 
so you request the contractor's and the engineer's records.

Your review shows the contractor "hogged" the bolt holes in
the timbers due to an overly-optimistic design detail, and
that the engineer's software input SUBTRACTED live load from
dead load in the design of the roof framing. You run hand-calcs
that shows the roof will in all likelihood collapse under
Code snow loading. The snows are coming in a month.

Q: What is your responsibility to notify the State Board of 
this gross engineering malpractice? What is your obligation to
notify the public agency Owner of the impending potential for
collapse? What is your obligation to notify the Engineer first
and let him come up with an appropriate defense. As a fellow
engineer, but NOT employed by that Engineer, what is your
obligation to keep silent?

* * *

That was easy!

I'm collecting and collating (anonymous) responses to these
five ethics questions, and will be distributing them nationally
to engineering colleges for their use in Ethics education.

Without detailed situational ethics for students to review,
any general ethics course isn't worth the paper its printed on.

Any replies would be appreciated, preferably directly addressing
each question in turn. "From:"'s and signatures will be stripped
from the files before they are saved to disk, unless requested.

Thanks to those who share these concerns.

For those who don't think this is a (growing) problem, 
"wake up and smell the coffee"!!

And those who think these are simple problems to resolve,
I'd suggest they've never faced them (or been blackballed).
Robert Marmaduke PE
POB 28995, Bellingham, WA 98228 (360) 738-0854
avi(--nospam--at) < >