Embracing the Challenges of Ethical Engineering

Article by Robert Peeling CEng FIChemE

Robert Peeling, chair of IChemE’s Congress, recounts the ethical lessons he has learned throughout his career and offers a selection of ethical exercises for you to undertake individually or with your teams

FOLLOWING the IChemE president’s recent debates on engineering ethics in Congress, I suspect that any one of us with more than a few years or so in this profession will be able to find an example of when we’ve personally faced ethical challenges, and perhaps observed other examples of good practice. I would like to share some I have come across over my working life. They touch on several different concerns, not only process safety, and while having been exposed to a range of issues, my experience is probably typical of many other engineers.

The right thing to do

Many years ago, I was asked to investigate an incident in which three people were injured (thankfully not severely) and had suffered statutory lost time accidents. The plant was due to restart following some planned maintenance during which the incident happened, but the site operations manager insisted that the plant remain offline until the root cause of the incident was found. One of the plant engineers argued that we had to start up because we were losing money, but the operations manager made it quite clear that the right thing to do was to accept the loss until we were sure we could prevent repetition. For me, this continues to stand out as an example of the leadership I want and expect to see in our profession.

However, time most certainly is money, so we worked through the weekend and by Sunday lunchtime, it was clear how the event had occurred, in terms of our physical understanding, and more importantly, why, by which I mean the role played by human factors. In this case, the plant management had changed part of the maintenance procedure as a trial and, incidentally, carried out an inadequately controlled modification. The intention had been to simplify and improve maintenance preparation procedures, but the failure to recognise it as a process change meant the risk assessment had been deficient. With the investigation team able to explain how the incident occurred and provide an action plan to prevent reoccurrence, the operations manager authorised the plant to be restarted.

As one would hope and expect, the regulatory authorities investigated too. Transparency with the Health and Safety Executive over what we had determined to be the cause of the incident paid an unexpected dividend. The inspector declared that since we were already doing everything he required in terms of enforcement, there was no purpose in prosecuting the company. How often do we see attempts to cover up or bury the bad news in all walks of life?

Throughout your working life, expect to become involved with ethical issues of varying degrees of severity

For me, the hardest part – and I believe this was the toughest presentation I have ever given – was to explain to the plant maintenance personnel how their management team, which included myself, had failed them through making this uncontrolled modification, all while the three injured people, by that point recovered and well, sat in the front row. Tough, maybe, but I was nevertheless determined to provide that explanation because I knew it was the right thing to do.

One lasting lesson was the realisation that no matter the incident or the direct root cause, the management could always have done something better, or differently, which would have either reduced the likelihood or mitigated the consequences. I have since looked for this as a finding in any investigation, particularly where I am involved, and I hope I have not held back from treating myself to the same critical review, but perhaps that is a question for my colleagues to answer.

A lesson in transparency

I ran into a rather different kind of issue when we recruited an early-career engineer into my team. At the time, we were under resourced, which meant that myself and the other interviewer felt pressured to fill the position with the best candidate in front of us, knowing they may not necessarily be the right person for the role.

As time passed, I found that my new recruit needed a lot of support developing the skills and competencies required for the job. It became clear that I had made a mistake prioritising another pair of hands in the team over having the right pair of hands. The situation was also unfair for the young engineer, who was now under pressure in a role their talents did not suit them for, through no fault of their own, and with the rest of the team and I having to coach and support them in addition to the other demands of managing the project.

I could see that there was another chemical engineering role where I thought this person would very likely succeed and thrive. I felt that, although difficult, the right thing to do was to talk with them honestly about the situation and suggest that they would do better, and be happier, if they looked elsewhere for a more suitable position. It would have been wrong to undertake such a course of action without discussing and gaining support from the human resources team, but it was clear that they could not lead the discussion with the individual – that was rightly down to me – and certainly I felt responsible for having created this problem nearly two years earlier.

This was, of course, a very difficult conversation to have, and complete honesty and openness helped. The engineer and I both agreed that looking for another role was a good idea and about three months later, they had started working elsewhere in exactly the area of chemical engineering I had suggested and went on to make a success of it.

When such issues crop up, I think it is important to reflect afterwards on the actions you took and how they went. In this instance, I think the key indicators that this difficult process was a success are that our working relationship survived the shock and we remained in contact well after the individual left the company. The credit for this must belong to them as much as to myself.

A good engineer always has a contingency plan up their sleeves

A piece of advice

The year before the pandemic, I returned to Teesside on business and a former colleague and Congress member invited me to that evening’s Member Group meeting. One of the talks presented a collection of real-life examples of ethical challenges faced by early-career engineers and their positive responses. This was intended to help with completing “Section D” (evidence to show that you are committed to high standards of professional and ethical conduct) of the C&C report. Two things struck me: first, the impact of the issues encountered, including safety, but more shockingly touching on bribery and corruption too; and secondly, how well these relatively inexperienced engineers had responded to and dealt with very serious matters.

It was encouraging to hear how well the engineers had performed. Another sobering thought struck me though, and that was that these engineers hadn’t received much more guidance on these ethical issues than I did when starting my own career 40 years ago. It seems that young engineers are often still having to work it out for themselves, so I would like to help by offering the best advice I can give based on my experiences:

Listen to your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, analyse the situation in order to recognise your cause for concern. While addressing it, think everything through and try to identify a progressive solution. This could benefit from talking to others and sharing the problem, if possible.

Remember, there is no definite answer; there will always be a mix of upsides and downsides. However, the solution you choose should be the best you can devise based on the information and knowledge you have at the time. “Best” in this context means balancing the ups and downs for society, your colleagues, the company you work for, and last but not least, yourself.

Having decided on your course of action, stick to it. That may not be easy, of course – I have had to hold my ground on a couple of occasions while people are actually shouting into my face – and so be prepared to defend your course of action. In practice, and particularly when safety was involved, I found that I was never seriously challenged.

A process safety expert taught me a great test for whether or not you really have a solution. After discussing a problem, as he stood to leave the room, he always asked me: “Rob, are you going to sleep tonight?” If I hesitated in the slightest to answer “yes”, he would sit back down and we would continue the conversation. Try it on yourself, it is remarkably effective.

A message to new engineers

I would like to close with some ideas that you might try using to develop your own and others’ application of ethical engineering principles.

It is quite common in some organisations to open meetings with a safety moment. How about occasionally substituting it for an ethics moment, giving an example of a problem and discussing how it was handled? After all, safety and ethics are frequently intertwined.

More interactively, ask for a short period to be set aside during meetings. Take a case study or recent event and collectively discuss different approaches. What ethical issues are raised and were they addressed? Were the findings openly shared with all the stakeholders? Or perhaps take an element from either the RAEng Ethical Statement or the IChemE Code of Professional Conduct and discuss how that might apply to people’s roles.

All of the above suggestions are valid, autodidactic examples of continuing professional development (CPD) and I recommend logging them in your CPD record. Further CPD resources can be found on engc.org.uk, icheme.org, and raeng.org.uk, such as the RAEng’s Engineering Ethics in Practice: A Guide for Engineers, which includes a number of case studies to read through and think about.

If you would like some more formal, on-demand training, then try the IChemE short course, Ethical Decision-Making for Chemical Engineers, which is available free to IChemE members through the Sustainability Hub.

I hope these activities and resources, together with the advice I offer throughout this article, will be an aid to you when practising engineering fairly, honestly, and ethically. Engineering is as much about working with people as it is with technology, and so the issues that come your way will be more diverse, and perhaps for that reason, more challenging for you than technical concerns.

Article by Robert Peeling CEng FIChemE

Process understanding consultant and chair of IChemE’s Congress

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