Professional Ethics Notes eBook
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Dealing with risk posses many perils for the engineer. In this chapter, we shall consider some of these perils, especially as they relate to the engineer s ethical and professional responsibilities. First, we shall look at some reasons why accidents are hard to anticipate and risk is often difficult to estimate. Some studies of accidents in technology-related areas have even suggested that accidents are inevitable and that there is such a thing as the normal accident.
Next, we shall examine some reasons why it is easy for engineers to accept incrementally increasing risk, almost without realizing it. Using the events leading up to the challenger explosion as an illustration, we shall show how engineers can increase the chance of accidents by a process, which may not be fully realized until an accident occurs.
Then, we shall look at several different approaches to the definition of acceptable risk. Engineers should be aware of the fact that different social groups have different definitions of acceptable risk and different agendas regarding proper management of risk. One approach is that of the risk expert, who wants to balance risk and benefit in a way
that optimizes overall public well-being. The layperson, on the other hand, wants to protect himself or herself from risk involves certain dreaded events, such as cancer or nuclear catastrophe. This approach leads to a definition of acceptable risk that differs from the risk expert s. The government regulator wants as much assurance as possible that the public is not being exposed to unexpected harm. This approach is different from either of the other two.
To manager risk responsibly, engineers should also be aware of some of the issues posed by legal liability for risk. One of these issues is that the standards of proof are very different in science and tort law. This fact poses ethical problems, because the standards of tort law give more protection to the victims of technologically imposed risk, and the standard of science give more protections to the creators of technologically imposed risk, and the standards of science give more protection to the creator of technologically imposed risk. Another issue is the legal liabilities incurred by engineers in attempting to protect the public from unnecessary risk.
Before discussing any of this, however, we should consider what the engineering codes have to say about risk and safety.
1.2 Codes and Engineering Practice Regarding Risk and Safety Virtually all engineering codes give a prominent place to safety, stating that engineers must hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public. The relationship of risk to safety is very close. If products, structures, processes, and substances are unsafe, they subject humans and the environment to undue risk. Therefore, the statements in the codes having to do with safety are relevant to the topic of risk.
The NSPE code, in sections II.1.b and III.2.b, requires engineers to design safely, defining this in terms of accepted engineering standards. For example, item III.2.b instructs engineers not to complete, sign or seal plans and or specifications that are not of a design safe to the public health and welfare and in conformity with accepted engineering standards. Items II.1.a instructs engineers that if their professional judgment
is overruled in circumstances where the safety, health, property or welfare of the public