By Maria C. Lehman, P.E., ENV SP, F.ASCE

woman smiling at camera
Maria C. Lehman

As I reflect on the past year, it pains me deeply that the above title is so true. The ongoing water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi; the earthquake in Turkey and Syria with the large loss of life; and the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, precipitating an environmental crisis are examples. Either by noncompliance with building codes or choosing to look the other way to maximize profits, decisions were made not to follow civil engineering codes, standards, and best practices. It’s behavior that is so disturbing, it shakes me to the core.

Our updated ASCE Code of Ethics states in the preamble:

Members of The American Society of Civil Engineers conduct themselves with integrity and professionalism, and above all else protect and advance the health, safety, and welfare of the public through the practice of Civil Engineering.

Engineers govern their professional careers on the following fundamental principles: create safe, resilient, and sustainable infrastructure; treat all persons with respect, dignity, and fairness in a manner that fosters equitable participation without regard to personal identity; consider the current and anticipated needs of society; and utilize their knowledge and skills to enhance the quality of life for humanity.

We create standards and manuals of practice that meet this code of ethics, but it’s not enough. We must strongly advocate for the adoption of best practices and standards as well as their enforcement. It is our professional and ethical obligation to do so.

We must step it up! Civil engineers need to run for those public leadership positions and offices to ensure that building codes and standards are enforced. We can’t allow other professions to get those roles. Our basic ethical tenet is to hold paramount public health and safety. Therefore, we have the responsibility to be truthful and honest through our work. So, we can’t just do the work — we need to be in a position to make changes and enforce them.

In the past few months, I can’t tell you how many government and private sector leaders have either complimented ASCE or quoted our new vision, mission, and strategic shifts as a global vision. It is proof that the work I envisioned, and which ASCE’s Board Strategic Advisory Committee delivered, is spot on! While we’ve accomplished much with this, there’s more we can do for the profession and the global community.

If you want to help those areas that have been recently impacted, consider contributing to the Disaster Response Fund from the ASCE Foundation. ASCE uses these funds to put experts on the ground to investigate what happened and find ways to develop the body of knowledge to mitigate future disasters. I made my contribution and asked the ASCE Board of Direction for 100% participation. Please do your part as well.

The raw emotion of these disasters has really made me double down on my commitment to change and supersize the cowcatcher at the front of the train to remove obstacles to change. Join me! 

Maria C. Lehman, P.E., ENV SP, F.ASCE, is the 2023 ASCE president.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2023 print issue of Civil Engineering.