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Business Culture | Ethics

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Are engineers adequately equipped to deal with the ethical dilemmas they may be faced with?

Major catastrophes that involve buildings and infrastructure – such as the Grenfell Tower fire – lead not only to questions about technical competence, but also about the ethics, behaviours and culture of people working in the industry. So, among the studies and enquiries in the aftermath of the fire focusing on the materials and construction techniques, we are also likely to see ethical questions being addressed.

“A lot of work was done after 9/11 looking at the way that building collapsed, but it also led to a lot of questions about what can we learn, and what can we do differently or better,” says ICE ethics committee chairman Gordon Masterton. “The same thing happened after Piper Alpha, and it will happen as a result of the Grenfell Tower fire.”

Forensic examination

He adds: “These things should be looked at forensically to ask what we can do better. Legislation is one thing, but there is also the ethics – are there behaviours or cultural changes behind the legislation that we need to draw attention to?”

Civil Engineering Contractors Association (Ceca) chief executive Alasdair Reisner says: “I imagine the enquiry will focus at least in part on behaviours and whether decision-making was driven by the correct factors. That is the kind of thing individual companies are looking at and we will also look at.”

Industry bodies like the ICE and Ceca have their own ethics policies and codes of conduct that define how their members are expected to behave. In the case of the ICE, members must adhere to the Rules of Professional Conduct, or face disciplinary action. The rules cover safety, competence, the environment, integrity and public interest (plus a requirement to notify the ICE of issues such as a criminal record or bankruptcy).

But behind the five main rules are guidance notes to help members interpret what the rules mean on a day-to-day basis. Guidance for the rule on acting with integrity, for example, includes a range of issues, from avoiding discrimination to breaching the 2010 Bribery Act.

ICE ethics document

The ICE also produces a document entitled Advice on Ethical Conduct. Members are not considered to have breached the Rules of Professional Conduct if they do not follow this advice, but the Institution says its members do have a duty to behave ethically. “Failing to observe the advice is not a breach – it’s about good practice, and raising the bar above the absolute minimum required to observe the rules,” says Masterton. “We want to stretch people to behave and consider ethical principles.”

He adds: “The whole suite of documents is regularly reviewed, but the basic tenets of ethical behaviour are pretty consistent – they haven’t changed for long time, whereas the guidance, help and advice are much more fluid and responsive to situations as they arise.”

Elsewhere, Ceca has its own Code of Ethics, which was last updated five or six years ago following a government crack down on blacklisting in the industry. And in July the Engineering Council and Royal Academy of Engineering launched a revised version of their Statement of Ethical Principles, which provides guidance for engineers and technicians at all levels on ethical behaviour and decision-making.

New issues to tackle

The two bodies felt that, since the original Statement was produced in 2005, some issues had grown in relevance. As a result, the new version takes account of the increased significance of climate change and the environment, as well as robotics and autonomous systems.

The statement is structured around four principles: honesty and integrity; respect for life, law, the environment and public good; accuracy and rigour; and leadership and communication.

But statements and codes of ethics are only useful if they can be translated into real-life situations that help engineers to understand how to act and what to avoid. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has published a book called Engineering Ethics: Real World Case Studies.

The reason people make mistakes is often because there is pressure on both sides – they lose sight of the bigger picture

Gordon Masterton, former ICE President

“We have seen an increase in demand for more materials that address training in engineering ethics,” an ASCE spokesperson told New Civil Engineer. That demand is coming from a variety of sources, including the accreditation body for engineering courses in the US and state licensing requirements for engineers, which mandate a certain number of hours of ethics training.

Those requirements in turn have driven an increase in sessions on ethics at engineering conferences, and requests from ASCE sections and branches to have fresh case studies for their local meetings.

In the UK, the ICE is addressing a similar need with a variety of resources, including its “Say No” ethics toolkit, an interactive guide that helps civil engineers deal with difficult ethical situations in the work place – particularly those associated with bribery and corruption. It was developed in collaboration with the Institute of Business Ethics and is available as a web tool and an app.

Hidden corruption

While out-and-out bribery might be easy to spot, Masterton says engineers can be faced with de facto bribery – for example being asked to make a donation to a client’s charity as a prerequisite for tendering.

Increasingly, students are getting the chance to explore ethical problems such as this on their degree courses, as the Joint Board or Moderators, which accredits university engineering courses in the UK, encourages content on ethics. Masterton, who runs a module on engineering ethics at Edinburgh  University, says: “We have first years doing role playing on ethical issues, and we look at the way situations emerge that could lead to ethical dilemmas.

“The reason that people make mistakes is often because there is pressure on both sides,” he adds. “They think they’re doing things for the right reasons, and they just make a bad judgement and lose sight of the bigger picture.”

Clients’ ethical demands

Reisner believes civil engineering contractors are very aware of their ethical responsibilities, not least because of increasing requirements from clients. “You are not going to be working for public sector organisations like Highways England and Network Rail without adhering to high standards of ethics,” he says. “They recognise that they have a role to play in society, and that feeds into their commercial arrangements with the supply chain.

“I don’t doubt that these organisations will respond to issues that come out of the Grenfell Tower fire, so we might see the emphasis shifting in terms of what they do in their procurement arrangements.”

One ethical issue very much on the industry’s agenda today is modern slavery, which was the subject of an Act of Parliament in 2015

“Modern slavery could potentially be an issue within the industry,” says Masterton. “Our ethical advice on sustainably materials includes awareness of forced labour.”

The fast-changing nature of the global economy means there will always be new ethical dilemmas to challenge engineers and construction workers. Making sure they have the knowledge and tools to “do the right thing” should be a priority for the industry. 


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