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Member Suspects Treatment Plant is Not in Compliance with Fire Code

Among the educational sessions available to attendees of ASCE’s annual conference this year was a workshop entitled Ethics: The Keystone of Civil Engineering Leadership. This session featured a presentation and discussion of hypothetical cases based on material from the Applied Ethics in Professional Practice program at Texas Tech University’s National Institute for Engineering Ethics. This month’s column discusses one of the cases considered at the workshop. For more information about the Applied Ethics in Professional Practice program, visit www.niee.org .  

Situation

Reilly M. Karful, a wastewater process engineer with Slud, Gefl, Owsdown, and Hill, has been given the task of designing an equalization tank for a wastewater treatment plant in the town of Whiteside. Whiteside’s current extended aeration treatment plant is located within a single room of a pre-engineered metal building that also includes the headworks screen, and Karful’s proposed design involves installing the new tank within the treatment room and placing the screen on top of the tank.

During the design review phase, the reviewer advises Karful that she believes a provision of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) code requires the location of the town’s sewage plant headworks to be made “explosion-proof.” Karful researches the issue himself and confirms that, given the particular characteristics of the Whiteside plant’s design, the NFPA code does indeed require the plant’s headworks and treatment room to be explosion-proof.

This news is particularly unfortunate because Karful is aware that, to complete the project, Whiteside will have to resolve certain financial difficulties. While the plant is badly in need of the proposed overhaul, it is already questionable whether the town can afford all the necessary renovations. Moreover, if it proves necessary to make the treatment room explosion-proof, this will only increase the likelihood of a funding shortfall. Nevertheless, Karful advises his project manager, Dante McWaves, about his findings, and the two present the issue to Whiteside’s sewer commissioner, Noah Scuses.

The commissioner reacts angrily to the prospect of additional cost and delay to the project. He reminds the engineers that the project is already behind schedule, that the town needs the new design to ensure compliance with state regulations, and that Whiteside does not have a great deal of funding for this project. He tells the engineers that he will refer this matter to the county fire official and will ask that official to contact them directly.

Shortly after this conversation with the commissioner, the county fire official, Bobby Burns, phones Slud, Gefl, Owsdown, and Hill and advises McWaves that the room in question is already explosion-proof. McWaves is relieved to hear this news, and he advises Karful to finish the project and not to bother Scuses with further problems.

While McWaves seems content to accept the fire official’s assurances, Karful is not convinced. Karful is by no means an expert on fire codes; however, he has observed the treatment room closely, and he noted that its light fixtures, junction boxes, and other electrical equipment show no signs of having been made explosion-proof. Despite knowing that further action could result in increased cost and delay for the project and despite McWaves’s decision to let the matter go, Karful continues to have doubts about whether the treatment room is in compliance with the NFPA code.

Question

What is the most ethically correct course of action for Karful to take to address his suspicion that the Whiteside sewer treatment room has not been made explosion-proof?

Session attendees were asked to consider the following options:

  1. Karful should discuss his concerns regarding the fire official’s “convenient” statement with McWaves. He should recommend to McWaves that they revisit this issue with Scuses and advise the client of the engineer’s obligation to comply with all applicable codes, as well as the consequences of negligence. They should follow up this conversation with a letter expressing their concerns. This would clearly demonstrate the seriousness of the matter while leaving the issue in Scuses’s hands.
  2. Karful should investigate the matter further, consulting the NFPA code and possibly involving a more experienced third party to inspect the treatment plant and to provide input. If the room is not in compliance, Karful should develop various solutions. This extra work should be billed to the project regardless of the effect on the project’s budget. 
  3. Karful should investigate the matter further but should do so on his own time so that there is no cost to the project. If he continues to believe something is amiss, he should develop a plan of action that includes cost estimates and he should provide this to McWaves. He should make it clear to McWaves that he did not bill his additional time to the project.
  4. Karful should accept the official’s analysis as well as McWaves’s order and should finish the project. However, he should carefully document his concerns about the situation in writing.
  5. Karful should discuss his concerns regarding the “convenient” statement with McWaves and seek his advice on how best to protect the firm from legal liability in the event of future mishaps in the treatment room. For example, the firm might request that the fire official confirm in writing that the treatment plant is explosion-proof and in compliance with the NFPA code.
  6. Karful should discuss his concerns with McWaves and recommend that they meet with the fire official to examine the treatment plant in person. Perhaps the fire official is relying on inaccurate information about the room or has mistaken this room for another.

 Decision

The workshop discussions drew on a number of canons in ASCE’s Code of Ethics. Participants felt the facts of this case related to an engineer’s obligation to perform services only in an area of competence (canon 2), to be truthful and objective in professional reports (canon 3), and to serve one’s client as a faithful trustee (canon 4). Ultimately, however, participants felt that Karful’s actions in this case should be governed primarily by canon 1, which states in part that “engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”

As important as it may be to complete a project on time and within the budget, an engineer’s primary responsibility is to serve the public. In the case in question, if the treatment room is not in compliance with the NFPA fire protection standards, it could well constitute a threat to public safety. However tempting it may be to take the “easy road” of relying on the official’s statements and not asking questions, participants felt that canon 1 imposed an ethical obligation on Karful to take further action to allay his doubts about the room’s safety.

Session participants were invited to vote twice on the question of Karful’s best course of action, once immediately after the case was presented and again after a period of discussion. The purpose of the second vote was to determine whether an exchange of ideas by the participants would have an influence on the voting results. In the first vote, options 1, 2, and 6 received a fairly equal number of votes, option 2 being a slight favorite. The discussion focused on the engineer’s obligation to ensure safety and compliance with applicable codes and the corresponding obligation to resolve any doubts about the safety or compliance of a design. While documenting one’s reservations as a means of avoiding legal liability and communicating with other decision makers were generally regarded as sound practices, participants felt that these options did not adequately address the gravity of Karful’s concerns. In the vote that followed the discussion, the results were unequivocal, option 2 garnering more than half the votes.

Members who have an ethics question or would like to file a complaint with the Committee on Professional Conduct may call ASCE’s hotline at (703) 295-6061 or (800) 548-ASCE (2723), extension 6061. The attorneys staffing this line can provide advice on how to handle an ethics issue or file a complaint. Please note that individual facts and circumstances vary from case to case and that the general summary information contained in these case studies is not to be construed as a precedent binding upon the Society. 

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