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E-mail Discretion
11

E-mail Discretion

E-mail Discretion

(OP)
I was told by a senior engineer not to report safety concerns in an e-mail. Is this standard practice? I have found that "conversations" do not seem to command the same attention as written documents.

RE: E-mail Discretion

This is what is called "plausible deniability." If there's no written or electronic record, then no one can be made culpable. However, if there is a "Pearl Harbor" memo or email, the fingers can be quite accurately pointed for criminal or civil liabilities. I would slowly move away from them, as they're mostly likely to point the finger at someone like you when sh*t hits the fan.

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Of course I can. I can do anything. I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert!

RE: E-mail Discretion

Hi ArnoldMC

While in the process of moving away from them, any safety concerns you have I would note down in writing the time, date and the person you informed as it might be useful at a later date.

RE: E-mail Discretion

Depends on the company. Since the OP has classified himself as automotive, no an email is not a great way of raising concerns. Your company should have a formal problem deck. However, there are certainly some second rate companies that discourage documenting concerns in writing. I worked for a subsidiary of one, a long time ago.

not entirely irrelevant - http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/cars/2014/05/1...

Cheers

Greg Locock


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RE: E-mail Discretion

Conversations are not as easily discoverable in litigation as emails and other written communication.

Mike McCann, PE, SE (WA)


RE: E-mail Discretion

(OP)
Thanks everyone

RE: E-mail Discretion

My guess is that your boss has been sued and is trying to mitigate the worst of the experience should it happen again. I spent some time with a bunch of lawyers once and one of them said if he had his way Daytimers, e-mail, and text messages would all be against company policy. It used to be that the only written documentation of an event was formal correspondence and signed reports--call it 100,000 distinct documents in a typical trial against Big Oil. Today it is in the millions, and there is so much redundancy that it melts your mind (everyone on an e-mail chain has the whole chain, and had parts of it dozens of times). He tried really hard to turn off the "include previous message" feature in Outlook on install and disable it for all employees, he lost that fight.

David Simpson, PE
MuleShoe Engineering

In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual. Galileo Galilei, Italian Physicist

RE: E-mail Discretion

Eliot Spitzer, ex-New York State Attorney General (and client number 9 of call girl Ashley Dupre) had the following words of wisdom on email communication:

"Never talk when you can nod and never nod when you can wink and never write an e-mail, because it's death. You're giving prosecutors all the evidence we need."

RE: E-mail Discretion

(OP)
Thanks for the posts, everyone. Here is my quandary.
Increasingly, e-mail and other forms of electronic communication are how we get things done in our jobs. If there is a restriction on what can be written, or what topics can be discussed openly in our normal business correspondence; won't this lead to the kind of business culture that led to GM not fixing a low cost safety hazard? If we, as engineers, know that the most certain and effective way to communicate a design/safety issue (and get people working on it) is e-mail, don't we have an ethical responsibility to use that medium?

RE: E-mail Discretion

ArnoldMC: You are absolutely correct that email secrecy can be corrosive and inhibit progress in many ways. Lawsuits are like cancer too, and lawyers will twist your words. It is kind of the world attempting to make two wrongs equal a right. Of course don't be stupid with email. That happens a lot too. There is a difference between facts and opinion.

RE: E-mail Discretion

2
There's another important distinction here. Are we talking straight forward internal emails ?? If so most of the previous posts are relevant. However if we are talking about contract administration / sub contractor management ( as most of my recent experience has been), then absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, if you are aware of a possible safety issue, where it is incumbent on the contractor to rectify the deficiency, put your concerns in a formal email , cc your boss when appropriate, and continue to document any concerns if the matter is not resolved to your satisfaction within a timely period. If something ever ends up in a court of law, its not who is right or wrong, it is which lawyer has the best documentation at his disposal and of course you, as an individual, can be seen to have done your best to ensure that the safety matter was resolved before an accident / injury.

RE: E-mail Discretion

(OP)
Great posts guys.

RE: E-mail Discretion

To me, it's a matter of escalation.
The first communication should be verbal and it should be directed at exactly those people responsible or affected, and it should be, "Guys, this ain't safe. I have some real concerns here."
The second communication should be formalizing the observation in a Near Miss or other incident report, if such an avenue exists in the company.
If no action occurs after that, and you still have a concern, email all concerned with a copy to your boss and HR; be prepared to be fired at this point.
If still no action, quit, and don't mince words during your exit interview.

People are either prepared to "live or die by the sword", or they're not. There's nothing wrong with those people who aren't willing to take things to difficult levels or ultimatums for fear of reprisal, family concerns, fear of job loss, etc., but to me, my advice would be: don't start fights that you aren't prepared to finish, even if the outcome for you, personally, sucks.

Play the scenario out:

"This situation is dangerous and it bothers me."
"If you complain about it, it will cost you your job."
Response "A":
"OK, I guess it doesn't bother me that much."
Response "B":
"I don't give a crap, it bugs me and I plan to make my concerns known."

Be the guy or gal who goes with Response "B".

RE: E-mail Discretion

(OP)
I like you Snorgy.

RE: E-mail Discretion

Sounds about right to me. The only thing I can add is that when you do that initial verbal communication, don't exclude the possibility that your concern actually isn't valid, because there's more to the situation than you may be aware of. If you go straight to the official written complaint route, you could be the one who ends up looking silly.

RE: E-mail Discretion

(OP)
All good points. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the complaints are valid, and the company is simply focused on a policy of no emails about issues.

RE: E-mail Discretion

ArnoldMC: another option is to go to an environment where your work does not matter and there are no implications for failure. No one will care what emails you write, though you may find the salary is not so good. There is a people reality as well as a technical reality.

RE: E-mail Discretion

(OP)
I guess I asked.

RE: E-mail Discretion

There is also the aspect that the principals see company policy through written communication, not the employees.

Mike McCann, PE, SE (WA)


RE: E-mail Discretion

It's not uncommon for The Big Boss to have stealthy access to _everyone_'s email, perhaps even with automatic flagging of messages with selected keywords.

It's unlikely that the usual chain of cowardice would even know of the existence of such a capability.

Tread carefully.


Mike Halloran
Pembroke Pines, FL, USA

RE: E-mail Discretion

If the company has a policy of no emails about safety-related issues, fair enough, but how do they respond to verbal discussion of such safety-related issues?

It still goes back to SNORGY's very good post. If verbal discussion of the matter results in action that makes the issue go away ... Problem solved, let it drop. But if obvious safety-related issues go uncorrected for far too long, then it's time for you to take action. That action could consist of any of the following:
- Have a verbal discussion with someone a level of management higher than the one suspected of inaction. Prepare them for the possibility of ...
- Send that email anyhow, and let the chips fall where they may.
- Keep a log for yourself of all such discussions ... just in case.
- Still no action? Notify the authorities and/or your local engineering organization of the infraction. Around here, a complaint filed with the government body responsible for workplace health and safety WILL result in them sending an inspector around.
- Be prepared for the possibility of having to look for another job. You may wish to do this pro-actively. Keep in mind that at least in some areas (including mine), the employer is not allowed to take punitive actions against a whistleblower. If they do, hire an employment lawyer. If they don't ... it's pretty likely that you will not want to work there any longer anyhow.

In all my years of employment, I've never gotten in trouble for doing the right thing, even when the truth hurt from time to time.

RE: E-mail Discretion

Throwing (yet another) log on the fire.

Let's assume you have a "good boss" who really wants to permanent change things for the better. A better drill mount, or replacement for old electric power connectors, am idea for a better boring bore motor that HE had wanted to implement for several years. But HE had no budget, and no substantial justification for ordering 150,000.00 in equipment when "we've always used that boring bar installation before .."

Remember, if YOU think YOU have pressure, your boss has even more time, budget, safety, and priorities pressures.

Your email of a "near miss" or cutting hazard (guy cold get his hand caught in the tool when he adjusts pressure) might be what HE needs as documentation that protects HIS programs and enables HIM to get a budget to change the equipment.

Give your boss (who is less frequently on the job floor or machine shop or remote site) a verbal as well- even if that is only a phone call. Do NOT "surprise" your boss with an email about a safety problem!

RE: E-mail Discretion

^ I've had this happen. I have the verbal discussion first (with a client, in my case) about what needs to be done, and the response is "Put it in writing, we need that document".

RE: E-mail Discretion

Discuss verbally first and second, but play dumb the second time you ask about it. "I'll probably send out a summary/reminder about this, unless there is some information that I missed..."

You'll either get new information, or you won't. If there are political or bureaucratic reasons, sometimes it is preferable to deal with the written email than it is to explain those reasons to someone lower in the organization. Give your boss the chance to make that decision. Just be aware that if it is a real problem that your boss is too scared to address, it's win/win for the boss if your name is on it. You'd be the one hung out to dry.

RE: E-mail Discretion

I absolutely detest "blame diffusion".

RE: E-mail Discretion

The next question is, if you write that email and end up being terminated or leave, and someone gets killed by whatever the safety concern is, does blame still partly get attributed to you for not going to the higher authority? You just documented that you knew about the issue. I think the end goal would be to work for a company that takes care of safety issues.

RE: E-mail Discretion

Forensic74 and other litigation people: How much do false alarms hurt people in litigation? For example, if the GM supplier with the malfunctioning ignition switch had a bunch of internal email chatter from junior engineers about how their FEA showed the plastic housing was over stressed, even though the final cause of failure was entirely an electrical fault, would that look to the court like a contributing factor? Or perhaps it would look to the court like a safety minded culture where problems are openly discussed.

RE: E-mail Discretion

If the plastic wasn't causing the issue, then it's not a contributing factor. If the plastic was deflecting and allowing metal-to-metal contact, okay, but it's no more a contributing factor than the radial belts in the tires getting rusty.

Dan - Owner
http://www.Hi-TecDesigns.com

RE: E-mail Discretion

Lawyers will twist anything you say or do against you if given the chance. Saying nothing can be a problem, too, but it's harder to have evidence. There are certainly times when it is better to talk than to write. Or nod instead of talk, as suggested in an earlier post.

The safety standards for many types of industrial equipment - notably, robots - require risk assessments. If you don't have one, you're not in compliance with the standard. If you do have one, it is a document filled with descriptions of all sorts of things that might possibly happen to someone if something goes wrong, and it is one hundred percent certain that it will not include every possibility, even though it "should" - because if you tried to do that, you would still be analyzing not only past the scheduled start-of-production date, but still analyzing past the scheduled END-of-production date, and that is not an exercise that anyone either (1) has time for, or (2) will pay for. It is also certain that even without going to such an extreme, it will identify risks that cannot be fully protected against.

If looked at objtectively, I am quite sure that the infamous Takata airbags have saved more people than they killed, and surely by a huge margin. I am quite sure that if one were to estimate a "mean time to dangerous failure", it is quite likely to be a very large number. "Safe enough"? Seemingly not.

If looked at objectively, I am also quite sure that no one foresaw the consequences of that little spring in GM's ignition switch being not quite strong enough in combination with the key having a slotted hole rather than a single centered round hole, oriented in such a manner that a huge load would impose a torque that would shut off the ignition. Who puts 5 pounds of stuff on their key ring anyhow? And in any case, an "engine stall" is conventionally regarded as a "driver irritant". Oops ...

It's not a perfect world. The legal system is not very good at dealing with that.

RE: E-mail Discretion

Brian: In the case of the GM ignition switch, there were emails from a mid level GM engineer prior to any failures questioning the adequacy of the part. I suspect that this is behind ArnoldMC's new email restriction.

RE: E-mail Discretion

Hi ArnoldMC

So your best choice's are has I see it:- follow the official internal mechanism for reporting safety concerns if emails are not allowed and or bring the concerns up verbally with someone more senior than yourself, in the latter case I would make a notes of time,date and who I spoke too.
If on some chance you end up in the witness box and your asked:-

"Did you know this part was faulty and might fail?" Assuming you answer "yes" Followed by "What did you do about it" you can respond "I reported it to my senior on such a date, time etc", and you have the notes to back it up.

Bearing in mind at this stage you are under oath which should actually mean something to any person proffesional or not that the truth should be told, I assume your senior manager would be as honourable as the members here and wouldn't lie but who knows.

I at least sleep better by making notes of things that I deem to be unsafe and think no one above me is listening.

RE: E-mail Discretion

Everything that I tell a superior or a customer goes into a chron file, either one associated with a particular project, or one associated with my daily 'other' activities. It has saved my bacon a few times.

Mike Halloran
Pembroke Pines, FL, USA

RE: E-mail Discretion

2
Pretty sad that we all have to talk about survival strategies that we can use in order to fend off the consequences of being ethical or truthful.

Pretty sick and stupid corporate world we live in.

The lunatics have indeed taken over the asylum; since long ago.

RE: E-mail Discretion

Amen to that, Snorgy

RE: E-mail Discretion

4
It's still possible to find places to work that aren't like that, SNORGY.

There's a right and a wrong way to raise safety concerns, which I thankfully learned on my 2nd co-op work term rather than in a situation with more serious consequences for doing things the wrong way. I was working in a process development lab, and the president, a very petulant and disrespectful and pompous PhD, had decided that we were going to do some tests using a very, very dangerous compound. The young fresh grad engineer who had procured the material and was tasked with carrying out this work was in tears, feeling that she'd been given a choice to do the work or lose her job. After reviewing the MSDS, which contained memorable phrases like "...those who have survived exposure report that the compound has a musty odour...", I approached our boss- a mid level engineer who reported to the a-hole president- and asked her to tell me the day these tests were being done so I could be absent that day- as a student, putting my life on the line for work wasn't something I was willing to do, and it was clear to me that my poor colleague felt that refusal wasn't an option for her.

What our boss pointed out has stuck with me to this day: the error that both the young engineer and poor dumb student me had made, was to assume that she would ever let those experiments take place if she felt the work could not be done safely. Instead, I should have said, "In order to do this work safely, it appears to me that we need the following equipment, procedures, facilities etc. etc. that we clearly do not have. Is there a plan to obtain these necessary safety provisions prior to the work, or do you have another plan?" By putting it that way, we wouldn't be arrogantly and unfairly presuming that she was a callous and unethical person who would compel us to proceed despite legitimate safety objections, which was definitely not the case with her (but certainly could have been the case with her boss in my opinion!).

There's definitely a right and a wrong way to raise safety concerns, and it is always the WRONG WAY to presume that the person in question would condone the carrying out of an unsafe act once they knew how and why it was unsafe. The good news is that none of us lost our jobs, and that the experiments were never done. The petulant guy got distracted by something else and forgot about it I guess.

As to putting it in writing: it is a courtesy to have those sorts of conversations verbally first. Putting it in writing for the record and requiring a written response is what you do after the conversation shows a probability of failure to communicate. But continuing with progressive measures, which if necessary may include your departure from the company and/or acting as a whistleblower, is an ethical and legal responsibility of a professional engineer. It needs to be taken seriously, but it also needs to be carried out properly and tactfully.

RE: E-mail Discretion

moltenmetal,

Well put. Thankfully in my case, I work in two places (I became a contractor full time four months ago and now divide my time between two firms) that aren't like that.

As you state, it's all in the approach and delivery. To assume an adversarial posture from the outset is probably unfair, at least most of the time.

Or until a certain track record has been established and an identifiable pattern begins to once again reveal itself, at which point, departure is appropriate.

RE: E-mail Discretion

moltenmetal: as SNORGY said, great post. The ability to handle serious stuff in a diplomatic but effective way is the mark of a strong engineer.

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