Doing the right thing, all the time

Jen Hanley_043015.jpgBy Jen Hanley, PE

On Sunday, July 19, the Tex Wash Bridge on I-90 between California and Arizona collapsed. Thankfully, only one person was injured. This brought back all kinds of memories for me. In 2007, from where I sat in my townhouse 30 miles away, the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis collapsed. Thirteen people died and 145 were injured.

When disasters like those collapses occur, studies and reports are written after the fact to try and explain what happened and who was responsible. Was it a design flaw? Was it negligence? Was it shortcuts in maintenance inspections? Was it cuts in spending? There are hundreds of questions like these that need to be asked and answered. As a professional engineer, all of them matter to me.

Being an engineer means more than just designing a project for a client or solving a problem. The role of an engineer is to protect the environment, and the public health, welfare and safety. Engineers are expected to exhibit the highest standards of honesty and integrity.

Each professional organization or society for engineers has standards identified for the behavior of an engineer. On its website, the National Society of Professional Engineers says that the fundamental canons of an engineer are to:

  • Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public
  • Perform services only in areas of their competence
  • Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner
  • Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees
  • Avoid deceptive acts
  • Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession

What does this mean to me, an engineer licensed in multiple states? To me this means that I am to what is right, not what is easiest or cheapest. It means I have a moral responsibility to consider the consequences of my decisions. It means I need to speak up if I see others cutting corners or risking the safety and welfare of others. It means I do not take responsibility for designs I was not involved with, or that are not in my area of competence.

In the best case scenario, only the infrastructure fails. In the worst case scenario, people lose their lives. Engineers have a responsibility to provide safe designs, as well as to seek out answers when tragedies occur, and to learn from them so that they may be prevented in the future.