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Ethical dilemma - area of competence

Ethical dilemma - area of competence

Ethical dilemma - area of competence

I have an ethical dilemma that I am in need of assistance in resolving.

I work for the building design department at an engineering firm. We do mostly residential and commercial light-framed wood construction, with some steel, concrete and masonry design. I have about four years of experience total and received my civil engineering license about two years ago. There are no licensed S.E.'s in the department, only C.E.'s. The first two years of my experience were spent at another firm working under licensed S.E.'s designing concrete parking structures, casinos, etc. and I am currently studying for the S.E. exam next year.

My boss (department head) has submitted a proposal on some concrete silo (grain storage) repair work. We have been supplied with the original drawings from 20 years ago. Apparently, the original contractor left out something like 25% of the steel required in the walls of the silos (some x-ray work was performed to determine this) and the concrete in the floors has been called into question as well. The silos in question have been out of service since that time.

Another engineering firm was brought in shortly after the silos were finished to provide repairs for some of the silos. We also have the drawings for their repairs. The contractor that is scheduled to perform the repairs this time specializes in this type of work and repaired some of the other silos in the group at a later date.

The silos are about 120' tall and 30' in diameter. They are in Seismic Zone 3 and not near the coast or any other high wind area.

We have a few reference books that cover silo design and can purchase more if we need to for the project. I have reviewed these books fairly thoroughly and feel that I am not misguided about the complexity of the numerous factors involved in the design. We also have some design software (RISA 3D) which may be of assistance in completing the design.

My supervisor wants me to be in responsible charge and stamp and sign the drawings and calculations for the latest round of repairs, though I have never designed a grain storage silo before (which he is fully aware of).

My question is: Would I be practicing out of my area of competence if I performed the design (and stamped / signed the drawings and calculations) for the silo repairs?

I have reviewed the Code of Ethics on NSPE's website (http://www.nspe.org/ethics/eh1-code.asp) as well as the Code of Professional Conduct in the 2003 Board Rules (section 475, http://www.dca.ca.gov/pels/2003_boardrules.pdf). Both mention practicing only in your "area of competence". But how exactly is "area of competence" defined?

I've found some examples on the internet on various websites of cases where engineers were disciplined for practicing out of their areas of competence. For example, where a licensed electrical or chemical engineer would be stamping and signing foundation plans or building plans (obviously out of their area of education, skill and / or competence). These examples were more clear cut to me than my case, though.

I know that you can make up for a lack of competence by hiring experts to perform facets of the design you are not competent in and I had thought about doing that as well.

After much consideration, I told him I did not feel competent to assume responsibility for these designs.

Am I being overly cautious and missing out on a good learning experience by not wanting to take on this project?

I have followed the forums on this website for a few months and greatly respect the opinions of some of the regular contributors. Thanks in advance for your assistance / guidance.

RE: Ethical dilemma - area of competence

If you don't feel comfortable with the subject matter then you shouldn’t do it.  Having said that, a concrete slab is just a concrete slab.  Provided that you have calculated the loads correctly from the relevant design code/guidelines then design away.

I assume it is your company's practice to have peer review of calculations.  Perhaps your company can outsource this review work to a more experienced practitioner for a modest fee, which will still allow you to gain some experience in these types of structures.

Good luck.

RE: Ethical dilemma - area of competence


From the information you have given and the preliminary steps you have taken, you sound like a very conscientious young engineer.  I think all of us have come upon this dilemma at sometime in our career.  

As to your question, "Am I being overly cautious and missing out on a good learning experience by not wanting to take on this project?", I would say yes, you are.  I agree with debuzz, you should do the design and then have an engineer you know, who's judgement you respect, review your work.  If there are no local engineers available for this, perhaps, since you are a recent grad, one of your college professors would review it for you.  

You still would have the design responsibilty, but the review would give you confidence in your design.  You also have the benifit of the original drawings and prior repair information.  That is really unusual and a real plus when preparing your design.  I would add that you should note the changes that may have taken place in the various building codes since the original construction.

That's my two cents, good luck!

RE: Ethical dilemma - area of competence

This is a wonderful learning opportunity, but you are wise to approach it with caution. Repairs to an existing structure, especially one with known defects and modifications, is a very tricky business. Calculations are not the same as designing a new structure - interaction between the various members may not be what theory would predict. In these situations experience and judgement are of great value. Since you have the option to call on the proper outside experts and have a qualified contractor, I would suggest that you take on the project. Be conservative with your design, document everything, and get good advice.
Best Wishes

RE: Ethical dilemma - area of competence

I don't think you would be truely practicing out of your area of competence.  You will just be expanding on your already gained experience.  For my first silo design, I did the complete design and then paid another engineer to review my design and stamp the drawings.  Basicly we set it up as if I was working for the P.E., and he had me doing the design work for his firm.  From this I was able to have him in my back pocket so to say to answer any questions along the way.  From this I learned what to watch out for etc. and now am very competent in this area of engineering.  Another thing to consider is that it expands your personal marketability, because silo and bin design is a field that many structural engineers are not experienced in.

RE: Ethical dilemma - area of competence

You are i a catch 22, if you dispute the assignment with your supervisor then you create a bad impression and a suggestion that you may be incompetent. Then on the other hand if you take on the design then you think that you risk practicing beyond your area of competence. In my opinion that is too ethical, or maybe too critical of your self. I would be certain that the boss signs the design as the "checked by". And verify the type of liability insurance the firm carries, whether you are covered or not. And I would possibly type in a disclaimer in the specs or the plans. Design engineering is mine field of possible liability claims, everyone that you encounter will be looking to tag you with the fault if somethiing goes wrong.   

RE: Ethical dilemma - area of competence

Hi jeffandmike,

After all the considerations you made, I think you handled this honorable.  That is, as a design engineer, you honestly evaluated your ability and made the right decision.  It may have pained your boss at the time, but he will grow to trust you.

As a project manager though, if you had consultant resources to do this design within the budget, your boss has every right to feel that you let him down.

With regards to the learning experience on any job, I believe as the stamping engineer, it should NEVER be a learning stage, a stamp means you are fully responsible and though much calculations were made, finally your experience tells you that it looks right.



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