Ethics,responsibility and engineering

In this column I will talk about ethics and responsibility and their relationship with engineering. This will be done with an example of environmental engineering and it ends with questions regarding your own ethics.

Ethics and engineering are not always thought to be as something that have a connection with each other. But engineers deal with a lot of ethical problems. Let me give an example.

Alex is an engineering student employed for the summer by Environmental Engineering, a consulting firm. RJ, the engineer who supervises Alex, directs Alex to sample the contents of drums located on the property of a client. From the look and smell of the drums, Alex believes that analysis of the sample will show hazardous waste in the drums. Alex knows that if the material contains hazardous waste, there are legal requirements for the transport and disposal of the drums, and that federal and state authorities must be notified. Alex informs RJ of the likely contents of the samples and asks what to do next. RJ instructs him to report only that samples have been taken, and not to do the analysis. Since the client is a major one for Environmental Engineering, RJ proposes to report to the client only where the drums are located and that they contain questionable material, and suggest that they should be removed. Note that it is much more expensive to dispose of hazardous waste than conventional waste. Many states have laws requiring environmental engineers to report any evidence of a "release" of hazardous materials. (Any presence of hazardous material in other than its intended placement for use and storage counts as "release".)Does RJ fulfill an engineer's professional responsibilities by informing the client only of the presence of the drums and withholding more specific information on their contents? What can and should Alex, a student and a summer hire, do in this situation? The first question is not a hard one, RJ should give the specific information to the client and to the state. Here you see a dilemma between money and do the right thing. If RJ does not give the specific information, the big client will do more business with Environmental Engineering and that means more money for Environmental Engineering. If he does do the right thing he could lose a big amount of money and save the environment. Alex has the same kind of dilemma, being quit and preserve your job or talk and maybe get fired.  The right thing is of course to tell the client and the state about the specific information. But what if Alex and RJ both choose to not do the right thing? Who would be responsible when the state find outs that the drums contain hazardous waste? Would it be RJ, Alex or both? They are both responsible in my opinion, but RJ is more responsible because he is a supervisor and should give the right example to Alex. Alex is just a student who probably would just listen to his supervisor, but he also has a brain and therefore knows the distinction between right and wrong. 

But what would you do? The right thing, give the specific information and probably lose a big client and therefore a big amount of money, or the wrong thing and you chose not for the money but for the environment. Are you good or bad?