The Growing Role of Ethics in Engineering

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Like other professions, engineers must conduct themselves in an ethical manner, observing rules designed to prevent the things they design and build from causing harm.

Engineers must ensure the use of proper and safe materials and conduct tests that reveal any unsafe conditions. Take the Challenger disaster, for example. Some Thiokol engineers expected o-ring failures at liftoff. (These rings separate the solid rocket motors filled with highly explosive propellant.) They knew that the cold overnight temperatures that had been forecast the day before launch would stiffen the rubber o-rings. Under these conditions, there was little doubt that stiff o-rings would fail to provide a secure seal. An earlier shuttle flight had revealed evidence of leakage or "blowby," Given all this evidence, the launch was still allowed to proceed.

The ethical issues facing today's engineers are more complex than ever. They accompany every technological advance, every breakthrough, and they haunt the poor decisions that result in loss or injury. From moral judgments in cloning science to cost-benefit analyses in auto safety designs, ethical considerations add the yoke of social responsibility to engineering. They guide an engineer's choice in materials, design and manufacture to ensure products are safe when used as intended.

Professional ethics go beyond personal preferences. Which is why most companies and professional societies have clearly defined codes of ethics their members are expected to follow. The ASME codes Policy 15-7, for example, provide guidance to professional engineers in commonly-encountered situations. In spite of these codes, "grey areas" will always remain, leaving the final decision with the engineer.

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Alex A. Kecskes has written hundreds of published articles on health/fitness, "green" issues, TV/film entertainment, restaurant reviews and many other topics. As a former Andy/Belding/One Show ad agency copywriter, he also writes web content, ads, brochures, sales letters, mailers and scripts for national B2B and B2C clients.

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