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Right & Wrong

Engineers on the job regularly make choices that affect people's lives and their own integrity.

By Lisa Hochgraf

Sometimes engineering ethics cases make the headlines, like when Roger Boisjoly tried to stop the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. Despite Boisjoly's objections, the ship was sent up, only to explode just over a minute after take-off, killing all the astronauts on board.

Boisjoly had more than 25 years of experience in the aerospace industry when, in 1985, he found a problem with the Challenger's seals that he thought could jeopardize the safety of the mission.

"It is my honest and very real fear that if we do not take immediate action to dedicate a team to solve the problem..., then we stand in jeopardy of losing a flight along with all the launch pad facilities," he wrote in a memo to his colleagues in August 1985.

Although he was asked to soften the urgency of the problem he had found, Boisjoly continued to voice his concern about going ahead with the launch. Unfortunately, Boisjoly was left out of the final decision to send up the shuttle.

For his honesty and integrity, the American Association for the Advancement of Science awarded Boisjoly the Prize for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility. In addition, Boisjoly is now helping to make a movie about his experience. (For more details on this situation, see

Not all engineering ethics cases have such dramatic outcomes, but the ethical choices of many engineers are equally relevant to such things as protecting public safety, boosting the reputation of the profession and creating the positive feelings individual engineers have about their work.

Ethics "Challenge"

Lockheed Martin Co., headquartered in Bethesda, Md., has been offering annual ethics training and year-round ethics resources to all of its 161,000 employees since the company's formation four years ago.

According to Tracy Carter Dougherty, director of ethics communication and training in Valley Forge, Pa., Lockheed Martin and other defense sector companies focused more on ethics in the workplace during the period when they were under scrutiny for such abuses as "$5,000 toilet seats."

Now, Dougherty thinks every corporation should have an ethics program. "People who don't have these programs in place are short-sighted," she says. If you lived in a community of 160,000 people, she points out, you might assume everyone is doing exactly the right thing. But someone, somewhere, is breaking the speed limit.

The hallmark of Lockheed Martin's program has been its "Ethics Challenge," started three years ago as a fun way to get employees-everyone from administrative assistants to engineers-thinking about ethics.

During the four months of challenge training each year, groups of company employees—from the CEO on down—get together to discuss ethics. This year, at "The Ethics Challenge 1999: Trust-Building," small groups of employees evaluated which of 12 Building Blocks of Trust, developed by the 1999 ethics task force, would improve the outcomes of various ethical scenarios.

The scenarios came from real situations reported to ethics officers at various company locations. Many scenarios were illustrated with "Dilbert" cartoons-a lighthearted addition that Dougherty thinks boosted employee acceptance of the training. A video and other training materials also sported the humor of Scott Adams' cartoon characters, especially the sarcasm of Dogbert.

In addition to the annual ethics training, Lockheed Martin employees are encouraged to seek guidance from a manager or their group's ethics officer when they're facing an actual ethical question.

"It's not that [the employees] don't want to do the right thing," Dougherty says. It's just that scheduling and other pressures can make them feel there isn't time or support to check out the ethical repercussions.

"Ask before you act" is the key concept she provides Lockheed Martin employees, Dougherty says. "Take the time. Call your ethics officer. Go to your manager."

Dam Safe

The ethics course that Nicholas Agnoli had as an undergraduate civil and environmental engineering student at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Va., was "a good reminder of ethics." Now a state engineer in the division of engineering and construction for the New Jersey State Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton, he has to make ethical choices on a regular basis.

Agnoli, who also has his master's in civil and environmental engineering from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick, reviews permit applications for private dams in New Jersey. The state has 1,600 dams of five feet or more in height, many of which create lakes of various sizes around which homes have been built.

In his analysis, Agnoli has to balance the interest of the dam owner with the safety of people and property downstream. "We verify analyses they [the dam owners] have done to make sure they're accurate," says Agnoli, who is working to get his professional engineer's license. "In the final analysis, we make sure [the dams] are safe."

Even with all the objective data contained in an application, Agnoli recognizes that sometimes he has to make judgment calls. "Sometimes engineering gets into the opinion area," he says. "What one engineer thinks is a safe design another engineer might not."

Agnoli says he also has to remind companies that a past history of permit approvals doesn't guarantee an approval on a current or future permit. "You've worked with a company and it makes them feel like they have more leverage," he says. "You just have to state, 'Even though you've done nine out of 10 correctly, we want to make sure you do 10 out of 10 correctly.' It comes down to protecting the public."

All this is not to say that Agnoli isn't sensitive to the situation of the dam owners. He says he's talked to elderly widows who can't afford to make needed dam repairs.

"You feel bad," Agnoli says. "Sometimes you want to let them go. But then you look downstream and you see a couple of homes."

Sometimes landowners call their state representatives to complain that "the state's bullying me" when they've been told to make repairs before a permit will be issued. Then the representatives "call and put their two cents in," Agnoli says. "When we're explaining, they usually listen to logic."

Improve the Process

Sometimes client attitudes about pricing and the entrepreneurial drive for profit create tough choices for engineers as well, says Dick Otis, vice president of applied technologies at Ayres Associates in Madison, Wis.

An environmental engineer and P.E., Otis works with small, unsewered communities to develop cost-effective wastewater disposal solutions. One of the challenges he faces is when communities choose their engineering help based only on price, rather than on qualifications.

"If they get the most qualified person, the money they do spend is best spent," Otis says, noting that many communities will take the low bid on all the pieces of the job, rather than looking for the best-qualified person and an overall best price. "You try to educate the client that way (toward the big picture), but often they feel they can't make a judgment based on qualifications."

The end result, Otis says, is that sometimes a project budget is so tight it limits the ability of engineers to do the very best job and still make money for the company.

"There's always this tension going on because you're operating a business," he says. "We have to follow the rules that are established, but we also have an employer" that needs to see a profit.

"I sometimes wonder, 'Are we in a profession or is this just a business?'" Otis says. "So many businesses are bottom-line businesses. In a profession, you're driven by a higher standard."

Lisa Hochgraf makes words work for people through Top-Notch Text, a national writing and editing company based in Livonia, Mich.


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