Ethical Standards, Codes, Certifications & Scenarios in Engineering

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia has a BSChE. She's an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting.

Engineering is a scientific profession that has the potential for creating ethical dilemmas. This lesson will discuss engineering codes of ethics, professional certification, and various ethical scenarios. Updated: 10/30/2021

Knowledge is Power

The profession of engineering is all about creating solutions to problems and using scientific knowledge to meet the needs of society. Because knowledge is power, it has the potential to be used for destructive purposes. Engineers often work with systems that can cause great damage if they are applied or operated incorrectly or unethically. That is why it is crucial for engineers to become both masters of their field of knowledge and motivated by the highest standards of ethics and moral values.

Public Safety Depends on Engineers
the public safety

The National Society of Professional Engineers

The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) was established in New York City in 1934 to provide advocacy for engineers and to address their professional and ethical concerns. The goal of the NSPE is to create a standard for engineering by offering the PE, or Professional Engineer, licensure as a credential that identifies a member of the profession as an accountable and qualified practitioner.

The NSPE Code of Ethics

A code of ethics is especially important in engineering because of the potential that this profession has to jeopardize public safety. Most of us have seen or heard about the consequences that can occur when unethical engineers or scientists focus on profit or media attention rather than the benefit of humankind. The NSPE Code of Ethics demands that engineers ''conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.'' This sets the bar very high for the entire profession.

Rules of Practice

The NSPE Code of Ethics specifies five basic rules of practice, which include:

  • Safety - Engineers must value public safety and health and must follow safety standards and codes when practicing their profession.
  • Competence - Engineers should only practice within their field of knowledge and competence. They may not approve plans outside their area of competence.
  • Honesty - All engineering reporting should be truthful and objective. A report should include all pertinent information.
  • Transparency - Engineers should be loyal trustees of their profession and must avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Accurate Representation - Engineers must accurately communicate their credentials and areas of competency. They must not bribe or influence others to get contracts or work.

Professional Obligations

Engineers are expected to behave with professional integrity in all of their endeavors. The NSPE outlines the professional obligations of an engineer in its code of conduct. Some of the most important of these obligations include:

  • Serving the Public Interest - Engineers must be aware of the concerns of the community and should stay current with the latest knowledge. They must also consider the sustainability of the projects in which they participate.
  • Respecting Intellectual Property Rights - Engineers should not use or disclose the technical processes developed by another, such as a former client or employee, without the proper consent.
  • Giving Credit Where It Is Due - Engineers must accurately name those who are the creators of designs or inventions and give them credit for their work.

Becoming a Professional Certified Engineer

To have the best chance at finding a good career in engineering and to be credible as someone with engineering competency that meets the highest standards, an engineer should seek professional certification. To become a Professional Certified Engineer, a student must first attend a college of engineering that is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology or ABET. After graduation, the student should take the Fundamentals of Engineering or FE exam. Then, after completing this, the graduate must get four years of related work experience. After that, the licensing exam can be taken, which is the Principles and Practice of Engineering exam. In the past, engineers were not required to be licensed, but after 1907, all states began to adopt laws that require engineers to be licensed as PEs before they can sign off on any engineering plans that are to be submitted to a government or public authority. Those who wish to teach engineering must also have this certification.

Professional certifications may also be obtained in various engineering specialties. These certifications can show that an engineer may have extensive knowledge in the field of nuclear engineering, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, or other similar fields. Each of these fields may then have further sub-specialties. For example, an electrical engineer may specialize in instrumentation.

Ethical Issues in Engineering

Since the field of engineering involves a lot of technical knowledge and the collection and reporting of data, there are ample opportunities for unscrupulous individuals to manipulate or misrepresent these things in order to gain some kind of advantage.

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