what is the role of ethics in engineering? Picture shows Aimee Arsenault and Olivia Augustin from the English for Engineers podcast.

What Is The Role Of Ethics In Engineering?

engineering culture health and safety office communication women in stem Mar 17, 2023

You have more impact on health and safety than you think you do as an engineer. 


We all have beliefs that inform our actions, and these values affect how we communicate and make decisions. Even if you spend most of your time drawing, drafting, and crunching numbers, your ethics matter.


I recently chatted with Aimee Arsenault on my podcast English for Engineers. Aimee is a health and safety expert with a love of language and communications. She advocates for professionals to understand ethics so they can live by their values and improve the workplace.


Your moral compass helps you in situations as varied as saying no to considering the thoughts and feelings of others in an organization. This might not sound very engineer-y to you but the importance of ethics in science and engineering affects the safety of other engineers, workers, and end users.


What Are Ethics In Engineering?

We often think of moral principles when discussing ethics. Memories from a philosophy class might come to mind — utilitarianism, individual rights, and duty — but these formulas are just the basis for acting ethically.


A code of ethics is often based on these principles and summarizes how we apply them. In practice, this code can be difficult to act out. Definitions and morals can change from culture to culture, which is why it’s important to understand your interpretation and be able to explain it.

For example, if your code of ethics states you must act with integrity, what does that actually mean? Integrity most commonly means you must recognize your professional boundaries and competencies. You say no to projects outside your qualifications, training, and experience. 


For Aimee, integrity came up when she was asked to create a confined space entry program. Although she had the education, she didn’t feel comfortable taking this project on. It went against one of her personal principles: not working in an environment where she would die if an alarm went off. Because of this, it would have been unethical for her to say yes.

For a different person, this situation might not have gone against their ethics, but that’s exactly why this conversation is so important.


When you’re able to communicate your reasoning, you can build trust and foster a culture of ethical behaviour in your workplace. Effective communication of your code of ethics can help everyone understand and respect the principles of the profession, leading to safer and healthier outcomes for all.


How To Apply Your Principles In the Workplace

While you might understand your code of ethics, learning to communicate them effectively can be a necessary challenge.

Once you understand your moral compass, you’ll be able to explain your design decisions, say no to projects, set a good example in the workplace, and be a force for good.

Here are some ways you can become a more ethical engineer.


Safety by design

When I was in engineering school, we calculated the number of casualties per kilometer for a tunnel design. Looking back, I find it shocking we never discussed how to decrease these deaths.

You have an important role as an engineer to advocate for safety by design. Your work can lower casualties and improve the safety of not only the end user but the workers who build and maintain these buildings. 

Focus on safety by engineering from the start. How can you make the installation, maintenance, and end-user interaction as safe and easy as possible? You don’t want people to wonder what the engineer was thinking when they designed something.


Feelings matter

Safety language differs from engineering language for a reason. Engineering documents are very much directorial, but when considering safety, we have to go beyond steps 1, 2, 3.

As much as we’d like to think humans are logical, workers’ different thoughts and feelings always come into play with safety. That’s why safety documents consider emotions and why people do what they do. 

Learn from how safety documents are written when designing or explaining something. Considering how others think, feel, and react will help you uphold your moral code.


Understand the why

If you’re trying to get people to say yes to your proposal, you have to dig into why they’re doing what they’re doing. Learn to look for different terminology and manner of communication, especially in an international setting. Sometimes, you might actually agree with someone, but your distinct communication style prevents you from realizing this. Either way, figuring out the principles someone is coming from will help you come to a conclusion during a conflict. 


Remember, standards change

Have you seen the black-and-white picture of the ironworkers sitting on a building without safety equipment? Safety standards change. It’s ok to be uncomfortable with protocols or think a worksite should have more safety precautions. Most organizations will support your safety concerns if you can explain your reasoning.

Safety standards often vary from company to company, and the language used to describe them can differ. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification when on a new worksite and to advocate for safer procedures.

Even if English is your second language, take the time to listen to workers and stay up-to-date on new regulations and protections.


Culture is more important than language

Each interaction you have with someone affects the culture. You might know the work steps, but how you do them and how you communicate what, how, and why you’re doing them should pivot depending on who you’re working with. 


Dare to pushback

As an engineer, you’re considered an expert in what you do. Many people look up to you even if you’re not in a managerial role. With this respect comes the responsibility to not only talk the talk but walk the talk. Use this authority to advocate for safety by design, speak up when you notice something dangerous, and learn how to communicate no without ostracizing yourself.


Feeling like it’s all too much?

Communicating your values as an engineer and working in a multicultural environment is difficult. Learn how to speak technical English so you can feel confident. This isn’t your high school English class, this is practical business English taught by an engineer who knows what it’s like. Book your free 15min info call.