Why Do Engineers Need Ethics?

When we became professional engineers and joined the New Jersey Society of Professional Engineers, we made a commitment to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public. In our careers, we will encounter moments that test our resolve and promise to the public and to ourselves. Sometimes, the easy decision might be the hard path to take, but we must ensure to always follow the NJSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers.

Below are some notable real world examples of why engineers need ethics and when whistleblowing is the ethical thing to do:

  • The Challenger Disaster – engineers noticed the booster rockets on the shuttle would not seal properly in cold temperatures. Despite warning their managers, they watched as the shuttle launched, and 73 seconds later, it exploded killing the seven astronauts onboard.
    • Should they have become whistleblowers to prevent the launch? Vivian Weil of Illinois Institute of Technology reviews in this NSPE article.
  • MedTech’s Infant Respirators – Sam Wilson, an engineer at MedTech, found the valves on the company’s infant respirators were not able to protect from over pressure. After twice bringing this to the attention of his managers, he was fired after saying he would report the problem.
    • By following the code of ethics that binds professional engineers, Sam won his wrongful discharge suit. 

Sometimes, when working for a company for a long time or developing friendships with managers or our co-workers, we may find it difficult to address a problem, even if it seems minor. For new engineers, the difficulty may be the worry about job security. No matter the scenario, it is gravely important engineers follow our code of ethics. Below are some more real world examples reported by Steven H. Unger of Columbia University, which all ended in wrongful termination suits:

  • A software engineer in an ICU was told to cut down on testing to save time because they needed his efforts on another project.
  • A young electrical engineer was pressured to cut corners to meet the projected costs. It was “suggested” that he not add all the mandated exit lights or fire detection systems.
  • A software engineer working for a startup realized the new product being developed was using unlicensed proprietary software.

When navigating these difficult scenarios, you should know by following the NJSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers, you will have the society and the law on your side.

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