The Ethics Panel are compiling answers to the most common questions about ethical engineering. If you have a question, or would like more information in general, contact the panel at technical@istructe.org.


What should I do if I witness a risky practice?

Engineers in the course of everyday life sometimes come across situations that they can perceive as posing an immediate risk to the public. If they are not involved professionally, it is unlikely that they have a legal duty of care. However, as members of this Institution and as professional engineers it can be argued they possess an ethical duty.

But how far does this duty stretch? Perhaps the best example is that of the seminal case of Donoghue v Stephenson (1932). This case – very far removed from the world of structural engineering – concerned two friends who had visited a café where one them discovered a decomposing snail in a bottle of ginger beer purchased by the other. The House of Lords determined that it is necessary to overcome the issues caused by privity of contract in order to provide an alternative route of claim by the injured party which would not have been possible under existing law. The House of Lords solved this problem by imposing liability in negligence on the café owner, stating that this is where a duty of care could be found to lie. Lord Atkin outlined the limits of the duty of care in the following oft-quoted terms – the Neighbour Principle:

You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my neighbour? The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have them in contemplation as being affected when I am directing my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in to question.

If one is a bystander to a perceived risk there is not necessarily a legal obligation to act but the Neighbour Principle does offer a guide as to when it is appropriate to do so. Whether a decision to act is taken is a matter for individual judgement in the particular circumstances. If they feel impelled to act the issue should be raised with those responsible or the authorities appropriately.

In the context of the engineer:

You walk daily past a construction site, with which you have no professional connection. You notice that the scaffold on the 7 storey building still has no handrails; who is your neighbour then? And what action should you take?

You should contact the contractor, tell him that you are a professional engineer and if nothing is done immediately you will phone the relevant health and safety authority. If this does not work then you actually do phone the authority, it would also be a good idea to take a photograph of the situation.

What should I do if I am asked to work on a project that raises ethical concerns?

For most of us the problems we face during our careers are largely technical. There may come a time however when we are asked to work on a project which we consider to be unethical or immoral.

If you feel strongly enough about the issue then it becomes time to move on but before doing so it may be worth discussing your objections with your manager. This discussion should not be confrontational nor should it attempt to criticize company policy in relation to the issue. Express your personal views and explain why you are unable to proceed to work on the project.

Most companies will understand genuine issues of this nature and will endeavour to support staff with objections. Some companies may be able to offer alternative work within the organisation which will hopefully satisfy the objections; regrettably other organisations may not have sufficient staff or alternative work to deal with objections of this nature.

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