Engineering Ethics Dilemma

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Engineering Ethics Dilemma
David Provost (

“The greatest ethical test we’re ever going to face is the treatment of those who are at our mercy,” says activist Lyn White [1]. Though this quotation may best be applied to a leadership context, to me it resonates in an engineering one as well. Structures engineers design or products they create must have the best interests of society in mind, especially when lives are at stake. Regular people are largely powerless to effect any change in the design of the engine of a plane or car or the support system of a bridge. Everyday life as we know it depends on the trust of society on its engineers to provide a certain quality of life in which performing daily tasks is neither risky nor worrisome. For instance, drivers should not have to worry whether their cars’ breaks will work and homeowners should not have to worry that their houses will spontaneously combust due to faulty electrical work. For reasons like these, engineers operate by a general code of ethics provided by the National Society of Professional Engineers. To summarize the six canons, engineers must hold the safety and welfare of the public paramount, adhere to their specialty, be honest with the public, be faithful to their clients, refrain from dishonest or unethical practices, and act responsibly to uphold the integrity of the profession [2]. Any time engineers encounter ethically questionable situations, they should use these canons as guidelines to work towards a solution.
The year is 2025. Five years ago I was hired by an engineering consulting firm that makes recommendations regarding the repair and rehabilitation of massive structures such as bridges and certain buildings to construction firms that perform the actual repairs. When a bridge, for example, is due for routine maintenance, the state or county hires a construction contractor who then commissions an engineering consulting firm, us, to make accurate repair recommendations and cost estimates. Sometimes, the state hires our company before hiring a construction firm, but only in cases in which the structure has not undergone routine maintenance for a long period of time. Usually the degree of repair needed is far greater in these instances.

Nevertheless, one morning, my boss instructed me to assess the condition of a small 200 ft. bridge that was due for routine maintenance and to give the contractor my report the next morning. So, I went to the site of the bridge and met the contractor. He immediately noticed that I was fairly young, but I assured him that my experience was not an issue. Previously, during my first four years with the company, I made these consulting trips with another senior engineer whom I learned from by example, and gradually he came to supervise me on the job as I made the decisions. For about a year, my employer has trusted me to handle these consulting jobs on my own, and I told the contractor this exactly. It seemed to me that he was hardly convinced and had me sign the usual confidentiality agreement that makes my evaluations his property, preventing lawful disclosure to a third party without his consent. Then, he told me that despite whatever my report will say, he is certain the bridge only needs the bare minimum repairs, which are pothole and cement crack fillers, minor corrosion treatments, etc. I simply agreed to look over the bridge.

During my inspection, I found that there was significant damage to the pavement on the surface of the bridge as well as extensive rust on the guard rails. In my prior research I learned the bridge was approaching its intended 50 year design life, so the rust was not surprising. However, under the bridge, the end of one of the five steel trusses had suffered severe corrosion damage and needed replacement. In addition, under this truss was a concrete support that had a very high number of fatigue cracks and likely needed to be replaced. In my notes I recommended paving over the entire road surface on the bridge, coating every square inch of steel with siloxanes to prevent further corrosion long-term, and replacing part of the steel truss as well as the cement panel beneath it. If performed, these repairs would extend the bridges life another ten years at the very least.

After my inspection, I gave my notes and a rough cost estimate to the contractor, who was, needless to say, displeased. Apparently, my cost estimate almost tripled the budget allocated by the state and the repairs would take multiple weeks. Though this bridge is small, it receives heavy traffic loads as it parallels a major highway. The contractor proceeded to claim my evaluations were inaccurate and that if I failed to stick to his “bare minimum” cost requirement, he would find another engineering firm that would. Furthermore, if I revealed my information to the state, he would sue my firm for breaching the confidentiality agreement.

That day, I never gave the contractor a definite response as to what I would include in my report. On my way back to my firm’s office, I pondered my options and their respective consequences.
Option One

One choice I have would be to heed the contractor’s warning and submit a report with the usual maintenance repairs. Consequently, my firm would be paid its usual commission, so I would not be punished by my boss due to lost revenue. I could also continue the growth of my career without any major speedbumps or setbacks. Furthermore, in abiding by the confidentiality agreement, I would be following the fourth canon of the civil engineering code of ethics provided by the American Society of Civil Engineers which states as follows: “Engineers shall act in professional matters for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees” [3]. This canon goes hand in hand with the fourth canon of NSPE code of ethics. Both mean to establish a measure of trust between the engineers and their clients, which includes disclosing information to other parties.

However, option one does have its share of downsides. For example, on the relatively small chance the bridge collapses within the next five years and someone is hurt or worse, I cannot imagine the tremendous guilt I would feel when I knowingly made a dishonest recommendation. My company’s reputation might also be tarnished should the bridge collapse and I might never get a similar job again. There is also the consideration of how many more times this contractor will try to use intimidation in other instances to earn a larger profit. Should he be stopped?

Option Two

The second option is to report the actual condition of the bridge to the state as well as the unprofessionalism of the contractor. Fortunately, I would be adhering to the most important of the canon which states, “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” [3]. This canon happens to be the first of the NSPE canons as well. They mean that an engineer’s first priority is to protect people from any preventable harm. Sharing my report with the state would be ensuring no accident would happen for years to come.

As for the downsides, most of them come back to me. The legal headaches caused by the contractor might come back to me and my firm, costing me and hurting my relation with my company. Strained relations might cause my company to let me go and then getting a different job could be difficult because companies might see me as a liability. Further still, shutting down this bridge for repairs will be an inconvenience to hundreds if not thousands of people and might direct traffic to the highway, causing more problems still.

Option Three

There is another canon to consider and that is part A of canon six which states, “Engineers shall not knowingly engage in business or professional practices of a fraudulent, dishonest or unethical nature” [3]. Unfortunately, I am technically already engaged in business with this contractor’s firm, but if I send the real report to the proper authorities, I am forgoing my firm’s commission (and by doing so makes option two feel morally better). Option three is that I could have decided just to walk away from the site without filing any report and explaining to my boss that I cannot engage in any business with this contractor because he is being dishonest. Hopefully, my boss will recognize that I was protecting the reputation of the company from being associated with an unstable bridge and from what could be a lengthy legal battle. However, doing this would not be putting the best interests of society first because the contractor said he would just find another engineer who would take his deal. In a way, I would be violating the first and most important canon because I did not disclose important information to the state.


I am far from the first person to experience a moral crisis in the engineering workplace or any workplace and I am far from the last. There exist many stories of people in similar ethical dilemmas that I can learn from and influence my decision. For example, the NSPE describes a situation in which Engineer A becomes aware of a fire code violation that cannot be fixed until the client receives the proper funding. Engineer A has a similar problem that I have, one that questions whether a confidentiality agreement should be broken in order to protect the people living in the building or, in my case, crossing the bridge. The NSPE Board of Ethical Review found that should the client choose to do nothing regarding the ongoing fire code violation, then Engineer A is obligated to notify the proper authorities. The Board of Ethical Review cited the first canon, which says holds the obligation of an engineer to the safety of the public “paramount,” as taking precedence over the fourth canon, which protects the confidentiality between engineer and client [4]. Evidently, if I pick option two, I have history on my side.

In another case study, a geotechnical engineer advises his contractor to use pile supports at the bases of five two-story buildings so that the buildings will not settle and possibly collapse in long-term due to soft soil. He tells the engineer to recommend the use of a cheaper, less safe method that does not guarantee the safety of the buildings long-term, provided no signs of cracking exist within one year—the warranty period of the project. This engineer has a similar problem to mine in that he has a contractor who refuses to use a solution safer to the public. The general consensus of people who looked at this case study concluded that the engineer should not alter his report and that he should be fair and accurate in his recommendations [5].

Another factor that could impact my decision is the perception of the public. People are becoming increasingly aware of America’s deteriorating bridge system. This awareness has brought about some degree of change. According to an article published by the Wall Street Journal, “The bridge situation in almost all states has improved as a result of greater emphasis given to the condition of the system in the eyes of the public” [6]. The increased awareness can be attributed to bridge collapses in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Washington. However, new advances in technologies to insect bridges, such as x-rays and ultrasound, have made inspection easier [6]. With these advances, people will question how a bridge could possibly fall; option one is looking worse and worse.

I began to think back to a bridge in my hometown. It never collapsed, but I remembered how inept the management of it was. Every winter, deep potholes covered the paved surface, especially the winter of 2014, and the township would only ever fill the potholes and the filling would come out every snowfall. Finally, the entire surface was paved over one month. Not three months later, I learned the entire bridge would be replaced the next year, closing that busy road for 18 months with construction beginning November of 2015. After that, naturally, the construction was delayed until March 2016 [7]. I definitely do not want history to repeat itself with the bridge I inspected because I remember how much of an inconvenience the reconstruction and the mismanagement was to my town.

By this time I am realizing that the only one who benefits from my choice of option one is the contractor. Option one is basically a house of cards lying upon shaky moral ground that falls with the bridge. The real choice now is between options two and three. I can potentially save lives while putting my career at risk or I can wipe my hands clean of the entire situation. I think this choice is the one that really boils down to one’s sense of morality. In order to make a decision, I need to dig deep and think about how I define myself.


Realistically, I cannot determine with certainty which option my future self would choose because I cannot be sure of the kind of person I will be years after I graduate. I want to say that I would choose option two because it ring true morally. For years now I have defined myself by my morals; they are something that I feel have always set me apart from everyone else. For instance, one time in AP US History during my junior year of high school, my teacher was handing back tests, but I knew I had already gotten a 96 percent because the score was online. I remember how proud I felt because it was the first test of supposedly the hardest class offered by our school. However, when the teacher handed me the test, I saw a big, red 80 at the top of the paper. My heart absolutely sank. At the end of the class, I informed my teacher of her mistake because I clearly had not earned that A in the gradebook and she corrected the gradebook. When I told my friends after the class, they said they would have kept the 96 [8]. If there is one aspect I will remember from this experience, it will be that I had no regrets after telling my teacher.

If there were one conversation I will try to remember when a decision of this magnitude comes during my career, it would be one I had with my stepfather the day I graduated from high school. He and my mom took me to dinner that night and he grilled me about the type of adult I will become. He wanted to know how I define myself and I responded with the importance I place on morality and how it decides almost every decision I make and will make. He then proceeded to make me promise to never forget this, especially with how hard I have worked and the adversity I have faced in my life [9]. I have not yet forgotten.

My career might be more important to me, but I genuinely hope I will become the kind of engineer who abides by the codes of ethics. Today, I would pick option two; ten years from now, I still think I would pick option two.
[1] L. White. (2013). “Lyn White.” Goodreads, Quotes. (website).

[2] “NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.” (2015). National Society of Professional Engineers. (online code of ethics).

[3] “Code of Ethics.” (2015). American Society of Civil Engineers. (online code of ethics).

[4] “Public Health and Safety—Delay in Addressing Fire Code Violations.” (2014). National Society of Professional Engineers, Case No. 13-11. (online case study).

[5] “An Unsettling Situation (Case 1015).” (2014). Texas Tech, Ethics Cases. (online case study).

[6] C. Bialik. (2013). “No Shortcuts in Measuring Bridge Safety.” Wall Street Journal. (online article).

[7] F. Maye. (2015). “Construction of New Route 926 Bridge in Pocopson Delayed.” Southern Chester County News. (online article).

[8] “Wrong Test Score Given.” (October 2013). Real Life Ethical Dilemma from Past. (additional source).

[9] “Moral Conversation.” (June 9, 2015). Conversation with Stepfather Kenneth Ballinger. (additional source).


“What’s the Angle? (Case 1010).” (2014). Texas Tech, Ethics Cases. (online case study).
I would like to firstly thank Josh Lapekas for reading and grading my papers. Secondly, I thank Beth Newborg for reviewing the assignment in detail during class. Lastly I thank my roommate Ryan Barrett for discussing possible topics with me so that I could finally decide on a clear focus.

University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering


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