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(Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

 By Mona Savino & Thomas Smith, III


An engineer receives a request from a client to review a set of plans prepared by another engineering firm and, if approved, to sign and seal the plans. The engineer reviews the plans, checks all of the calculations, and determines that they are accurate. He then signs the plans and affixes his seal to them.


Is this a violation of ASCE's Code of Ethics? According to the guidelines to practice pertaining to canon 2, category (c) reads as follows: "Engineers shall not affix their signatures or seals to any engineering plan or document dealing with subject matter in which they lack competence by virtue of education or experience or to any such plan or document not reviewed or prepared under their supervisory control."


ASCE's Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC)-the body responsible for investigating ethics complaints against ASCE members and recommending sanctions, when appropriate, to the Board of Direction and the Executive Committee-determined, following an investigation of the facts, that the engineer did not violate ASCE's code. This decision was based on the fact that the engineer carefully checked all of the calculations and did not claim that the original drawings were his.

At first glance, this appears to be a very straightforward matter. However, there are other factors involved in this particular case. This engineer was, in fact, found to be in violation of the rules promulgated by his state licensing board before the case was ever brought before the CPC. Although he was not in violation of ASCE's code, he was in violation of the rules of his state licensing board, which in this instance are more restrictive than ASCE's code. In the state where this engineer practices, the state code allows an engineer to seal a document only when he or she has directly prepared the document or supervised its preparation. The fact that the engineer had checked all of the calculations before sealing the plans was not a factor for the licensing board. The determinative fact was that he had neither prepared the plans himself nor supervised their preparation.

This case highlights a very important point: an ASCE member is always responsible for ensuring that he or she meets the requirements of both the ASCE Code of Ethics and the rules of his or her state licensing board.

This case also illustrates the benefits of using ASCE's ethics hotline. Recently, an engineer called in with almost exactly the same set of facts as in the above case. The only difference was that he had not yet sealed the documents and was considering whether to grant a client's request that he do so. After listening to the facts of the case, ASCE's counsel and the engineer reviewed the requirements of the Code of Ethics. In this case, as in the case detailed above, it is permissible for an engineer to affix his or her seal and signature after reviewing the plans even though he or she did not prepare the drawings.

ASCE counsel then advised the engineer to check with his state licensing requirements. Counsel and the engineer reviewed the rules posted on the state board's Web site and found that in this case, as in the earlier case, the state rules are more restrictive than ASCE's code. If the engineer had signed and sealed the documents without having prepared them himself or supervising the preparation, he could have been found in violation of the state licensing requirements.

As these cases illustrate, the issue of when it is permissible to affix your seal to a document is not always clear. Always check with your state licensing board and with ASCE on any issue that is not clear to you.

© ASCE, ASCE News, May, 2005