Introduction to Industrial Engineering

By Jane M. Fraser

Chapter 8

IE Careers

Return to the Table of Contents.

8.3 Ethics

“Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.” (IIE code of ethics)

“He who is enslaved to the compass has the freedom of the sea.” (Source unknown)

On April 20, 1914, seventeen people including 10 children all under the age of 10 died in a fire in Ludlow, Colorado. They had been living in a tent city near a coal mining camp owned by Colorado Fuel & Iron (CF&I). Workers at the mines had been on strike since the previous September over low wages and poor working conditions and, when they were evicted from company housing, had moved with their families to land leased by the union. The strike was the culmination of two decades of effort to unionize Colorado miners; the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) was determined that this strike would lead to recognition in Colorado and the mine owners were equally set against any union.

CF&I was not obeying state laws that required that miners not be paid in scrip (paper good only for purchases at the company owned store), that representatives of the workers could monitor the weighing process that determined their pay, and that miners be paid for “dead work” (work, such as installing roof braces, that did not directly produce coal).

The Colorado National Guard and private detectives hired by CF&I had been used by the company to attempt to break the strike, including the use of threats, harassment, and violence. The striking miners also engaged in violence against strike breakers.

On April 20, a gun battle erupted between the company men and workers in the tent city. "The question of who discharged the first bullet is now unanswerable" (McGovern and Guttridge, page 215), nor is it known how the fire started, but the National Guard's own investigation concluded that

"men and soldiers swarmed into the colony and deliberately assisted the conflagration by spreading the fire from tent to tent ... . Beyond a doubt it was seen to, intentionally, that the fire should destroy the whole of the colony." (as quoted in McGovern and Guttridge, page 224).

Women and children hiding in a pit underneath a tent suffocated and died. (pages 235-236)

The strike and the deaths were major national news. The union called the incident the “Ludlow Massacre” and used it as a rallying point to push for better working conditions. In 1989, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) erected a monument at the site and excavations are uncovering more details about the people who lived there.

The point of this story is that the conditions of work have been the subject of conflict between employers and workers for a long time; both sides have shown themselves to be willing to mistreat human beings, lie, kill, and die over these issues. The story of the Ludlow Massacre is very relevant to IEs because we design the work place and we are often responsible for the conditions under which people work.

The simple positions of employers and workers are clear: workers demand improvements in safety, pay, work hours, and other work conditions and some employers resist. The reality is, of course, much more complicated than that simplistic summary. The trend is clear: working conditions in this country have improved tremendously through the efforts of employers, workers, government, unions, and private organizations. But as I write these sentences in the first half of 2006, 31 coal miners have already died in accidents in the United States this year.

You are not, as an IE, going to face the ethical dilemma of whether to carry out an order to set fire to a tent city where adults and children live. You will, however, face other ethical dilemmas during your career and you should prepare yourself by considering:

  1. the types of dilemmas you might face,
  2. guidelines that others have developed to help engineers decide what is right and what is wrong in ethical dilemmas, and
  3. what choices you will make and how you will behave if you face an ethical dilemma.

Some engineering disasters have received a great deal of attention and have lessons for engineers. While most of the following disasters relate better to civil and mechanical engineering, they hold lessons for IEs. The source I used for the information about each disaster is given at the end of that entry.

These disasters, and others discussed in the book Inviting Disaster by James R. Chiles, generally involve the design of physical objects, both large objects designed by civil engineers and smaller objects designed by mechanical engineers. We can learn from these examples, but since IEs are not as involved in such design, they face different types of ethical dilemmas. In particular, IEs are more involved directly with effects on people.

IEs face four types of ethical dilemmas:

  1. ethical dilemmas involving business practices,
  2. ethical dilemmas involving conflicts between management and workers,
  3. ethical dilemmas involving conflict between management and consumers, and
  4. ethical dilemmas involving conflict between management and society as a whole.

The first type includes dilemmas that are not particular to engineering, but can be faced by an employee at any organization. Examples include:

Most of these situations will almost certainly be covered by policies, usually written policies, in your organization. Your initial employment briefing or documents should indicate to you, for example, what should and should not be included in email. If I have doubts about sending an email I am composing, I picture the email as the headline story in tomorrow’s paper. If your organization does not provide you with such guidance, ask.

The second type of ethical dilemmas include conflicts between management and workers. IEs are often in the middle of examples like these:

These are indeed difficult dilemmas since, in some of the examples, you may be trying to replace management judgment with your own. While not everyone would agree with your judgment that the management’s decisions are unethical, you may decide that you don’t want to be part of such an organization. The most important piece of advice I can give you about your future career is that you should have a healthy ready reserve of money (say 6 months salary) so you can walk away from a job. As I will discuss below, I don’t advise that you make such decisions frequently or lightly, but you will feel much better if you know that your finances would allow you to walk away if the situation just gets unbearable.

Other ethical dilemmas involve a conflict between management and customers: Someone asks to you lie to a customer about the product’s capabilities or the manufacturing process used to make it.

Finally, some ethical dilemmas involve a conflict between the company and society at large.

Some of the above dilemmas may represent evidence that your values conflict with the values of your organization. Some of the examples relate to organizational justice. [more]

Ethical guidelines

The most important fact to keep in mind when you face an ethical dilemma is that you are not alone.

The IIE Code of Ethics (indeed the code of ethics for every engineering profession) starts with the statement that is quoted at the head of this section: “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.”

In class we will view a tape of an interview with Roger Boisjoly, one of the engineers involved in the Challenger disaster. You will hear Mr. Boisjoly make the following points:

The Code of Ethics requries an engineer to "hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public" but were the astronauts actually "the public"? The answer isn't clear but some observers believe the astronauts should have been involved more in the decision making process. However, teacher Christa McAuliffe certainly did not have the engineering expertise to evaluate the arguments.

Whether you are a licenses PE or not, you are obligated by the professional code of ethics. The National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) publishes a model code of ethics and the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE) has adopted this version. The Code can help you think through ethical situations and the Rules of Practice (see NSPE version) provide more guidance. For example, the Rules of Practice include this statement:

Engineers shall disclose all known or potential conflicts of interest that could influence or appear to influence their judgment or the quality of their services.

Because all engineers are bound by the Code, it can protect an engineer from pressure and allows engineers to stand together. “A code is a solution to a coordination problem” (Michael Davis, page 2), that is, it helps coordinae the actions of engineers in ethical dilemmas, without the engineers even have to talk with each other. It makes the engineering profession like a union, but a union to serve the public, not themselves (page 3). Thus, one engineer can count on the support of another engineer.

Students in this class have recommended these guidelines for ethical behavior for IEs:

Goetsch (1999, page 525) suggests 5 guidelines, each phrased here as a question:

Harris et al. in their book Engineering Ethics recommend an approach based on paradigms and line drawing. For example, if faced with a situation that may or may not be bribery, the engineer should consider features that describe bribery (for example, a large gift, received before a decision it is meant to influence) as compared to features that are clearly not bribery (a very small gift, recieved after a decision). The engineer can decide, for each feature, where the current situation lies on the line between bribery and not bribery. A case with many features near the bribery end of the line is clearly wrong.

Graduating engineers can be inducted into The Order of the Enginee, at a ceremony using this pledge:

I am an Engineer, in my profession I take deep pride. To it I owe solemn obligations.

Since the Stone Age, human progress has been spurred by the engineering genius. Engineers have made usable Nature’s vast resources of material and energy for Humanity's benefit. Engineers have vitalized and turned to practical use the principles of science and the means of technology. Were it not for this heritage of accumulated experience, my efforts would be feeble.

As an Engineer, I pledge to practice integrity and fair dealing, tolerance and respect, and to uphold devotion to the standards and the dignity of my profession, conscious always that my skill carries with it the obligation to serve humanity by making the best use of Earth’s precious wealth.

As an Engineer I shall participate in none but honest enterprises. When needed, my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good. In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.

According to their this website,

The Order is not a membership organization; there are never any meetings to attend or dues to pay. Instead, the Order does foster a unity of purpose and the honoring of one’s pledge lifelong.

Those who have been inducted into the Order wear a stainless steel ring on the fifth finger of the writing hand.

Inductees are encouraged to wear the ring and to display the signed Obligation certificate as visible reminders of the publicly accepted Obligation as a contract with themselves.