Public health, safety, and welfare

For the 2019-2020 school year, the ABET criteria for student outcomes include “an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors.” A previous post discussed the global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors. Now let’s look at public health, safety, and welfare.

The  Code of Ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) begins with six fundamental canons.

Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

  • 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.

Professional licensure

Every state regulates the engineering profession by a system of professional licensure. NSPE spells out the basic requirements as follows.

  • A four-year degree from an accredited engineering curriculum
  • The Fundamentals of Engineering exam
  • Four years of progressive experience under the supervision of a licensed engineer
  • The Principles and Practice of Engineering exam

Engineering school can be a long, hard slog, and both exams are thorough and grueling. And once you have a license you have to maintain it through continuing education. So why bother? Because only licensed professional engineers can sign or seal drawings for approval by a public authority. Engineers in private practice are legally required to seal engineering work for their clients. In addition, more and more government agencies require professional licensing of their senior engineers. Some states require licensing of those who teach engineering students as well.

The ethical standards and competency requirements for licensing protect the public. State licensing boards enforce them through disciplinary action–anything from imposing fines to revoking the license. If you’re buying engineering services, you can visit the licensing board’s website to check the status of anyone’s license in that state.

Civil engineering

Because of our involvement with public works, civil engineers may seem to have the closest connection to public welfare. After all, civil engineers often work directly for government agencies such as FEMA, state highway departments, and municipal airport authorities. And private civil engineering consultants like us frequently serve government clients. Infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, sewer systems, green stormwater infrastructure, dry docks, and canals almost never have private owners. And even privately owned buildings may be open to the public.

The ABET criteria require civil engineering students–but not mechanical or electrical engineering students–to understand the importance of professional licensure. But shouldn’t all engineers consider licensure?

Mechanical and electrical engineering

Boeing 737 Max
A Boeing 737 Max takes off from DCA airport. Shutterstock image.

It may not be obvious why mechanical or electrical engineers would need or want a license to practice. Most of them work for companies that use their services internally, in which case a license is not necessary. Some design or manufacture products for the public, or for other businesses to use. Still, a professional license may not be legally required. So why should they go to all that trouble?

Even if it’s not required, professional licensing promotes standards of competence and ethics. State licensing boards generally require continuing education to maintain a license. That helps keep the engineer’s knowledge up to date. Also, some of the training focuses on professional ethics, reminding engineers of their ethical obligations. Those periodic reminders help keep everyone’s attention on ethics.

All engineers could benefit from periodic reminders of our responsibility for public health, safety, and welfare. Boeing engineers were well aware of problems with the 737 Max. So why didn’t anyone blow the whistle about it before the crashes? Did they not consider that they had a responsibility to the public?

Similarly, the Texas power outage of February 2021 should have come as no surprise to lawmakers, the utilities, or their regulator, Ercot. There had been a similar outage ten years before, followed by a thorough investigation and recommendations—but no action. As a result, half of all Texans had no access to safe drinking water, millions of homes were without power or heat, and 111 people died.

Surprisingly, Rudyard Kipling wrote several poems illustrating how engineers serve the public’s health, safety, and welfare.

Taking a preemptive approach, NSPE is advocating stricter standards for driverless vehicles before California allows them on its roads.

The ABET criteria

ABET requires only civil engineering curricula to emphasize the importance of professional licensure. However, public health, safety, and welfare would benefit from more widespread licensure in the other branches of engineering as well.