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Professional advice

Nearly a third of engineers experience some sort of conflict between their professional responsibilities and their loyalties to their employers or clients, according to the results of

NCE's survey on the need for a confidential reporting service on structural safety published this week.

An independent confidential reporting system could be the way out of many of these dilemmas, as it is for professionals in industries such as air and maritime transport. But nothing like CROSS exists in the construction industry - yet. So what can an engineer do to resolve a perceived conflict of loyalties, without jeopardising either their own position or the reputation of their employer or client?

ICE Director General & Secretary Roger Dobson is in no doubt as to what civil engineers should do if they see a clear safety risk and are discouraged from doing anything about it: 'They should contact Great George Street,' he says.*

'We don't accept anonymous calls, and we would usually insist on the report being confirmed in writing to ensure we understand the situation correctly. But if the facts showed there was a clear and immediate risk, then I would be prepared to approach the owner or designer involved and ask for the problem to be sorted out.'

Dobson says he would normally consult a member of the ICE's Building and Structural Board before taking any action. And disputes over purely technical issues are usually much easier for the ICE to handle than reports of blatant breaches of the Health & Safety at Work Act, or such fraudulent activities as the under-cementing of concrete.

'These I would have to pass on to the appropriate authorities after warning the engineer concerned,' Dobson says. 'In fact, the engineer would be warned of this as soon as it became obvious what was being reported.'

Some engineers might fear that if their report to ICE results in direct action by Dobson or his successor, this might trigger a hunt for the whistle- blower, whose identity might not be hard to deduce. Dobson says these fears are exaggerated.

'I would only approach a very senior person in the organisation concerned, and very senior people take the long view. They would know that any witch- hunt would be counter-productive.'

Dobson believes the overwhelming support for a CROSS scheme indicated by the NCE poll shows that most engineers are unaware of the ICE's willingness to advise and help members torn between conflicting loyalties. 'It seems we haven't done a good enough job in publicising this service,' he admits. And he adds: 'Usually we find that most problems reported to us come from people who are not in full possession of all the relevant facts.

'When all the facts are available, the problem usually disappears. So our first question to anyone asking us for advice is always 'are you sure you have all the information'?'

Structural engineers calling their institution's Upper Belgrave Street HQ will receive only 'informal' advice on professional dilemmas, according to IStructE chief executive and secretary John Dougill.

'With a young engineer, I would suggest he discuss the matter with someone in a more senior position in his firm to his immediate boss.

'The Institution's branch network is helpful too, and I would suggest it would be useful to discuss the matter with a senior person in the branch - branch chairman, past chairman and so on.'

More senior engineers might benefit from informal advice from national vice presidents or the current IStructE president, Dougill says, adding: 'Clearly this is not a formalised system and is not 'advertised' as being available.

'Also, there are no formal procedures in place to protect the confidentiality of any individual member.'

Professional institutions naturally take their members' conformity with rules of conduct very seriously. The legal system might take another view, according to Phillip Capper, Professor of Construction Law at London University's King's College.

Capper says: 'Professional rules of conduct are perhaps the least important of the obligations on individual engineers.

'Above all else, they must avoid criminal liability. Then they must not negligently cause harm to any third party. After that comes the need to comply with contracts, and only then the obligations associated with professional membership.'

In practice, this means an engineering practice could be sued for breach of contract if it declines to carry out instructions from a client on the grounds that this would be in breach of the rules of professional conduct. 'Once you've signed the contract, you have no right to claim professional responsibility as a reason for breaking it,' warns Capper.

'Sometimes, of course, you may feel you have no other option - but it's no absolute defence in law'.

On the other hand, there is no general legal obligation on anyone to report breaches of statute law such as the Health & Safety at Work Act. There are some specific obligations, such as reporting road traffic accidents, but no general duty. And even if an engineer should see or hear about a potentially catastrophic safety risk on a particular site, there is no obligation to become directly involved.

'Doctors who happen upon a road accident are now advised to drive past and ignore it,' Capper explains. 'This is because if they do intervene and someone dies, they might be sued for treating an injured person with inadequate equipment.

'If you are walking along the bank of a river and see someone in difficulty, there is absolutely no legal obligation upon you to do anything at all - unless you're the local lifeguard.'

So an engineer who feels he should report a particular incident for the benefit of other engineers does so for professional rather than legal reasons. But Capper does have some key advice for anyone who is instructed by his superior to ignore a particular safety risk: 'Ask for the instruction in writing.'

A CROSS scheme would get round this problem. With such an overwhelming vote in favour, it is probable that a pilot scheme might be on the launch pad later this year. How such a scheme might relate to the Health & Safety Executive is still not entirely clear. What is clear, however, is that a significant number of engineers want to consult and to report on safety issues - and everyone will benefit if their wishes are granted.

*Ask for Amar Bhogal on 0171 665 2202

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