Canadian Consulting Engineer

Perils of Whistleblowing

August 1, 2013
By By Tom Sisk, P.Eng., FEC

Following is an extract from the “Ask the DPA,” column from the spring 2012 issue of Engenuity, the magazine of Engineers and Geoscientists New Brunswick (APEGNB). Questions are posed to Tom Sisk, P.Eng., FEC, who is the Director of...

Following is an extract from the “Ask the DPA,” column from the spring 2012 issue of Engenuity, the magazine of Engineers and Geoscientists New Brunswick (APEGNB). Questions are posed to Tom Sisk, P.Eng., FEC, who is the Director of Professional Affairs at the association. The article is reproduced with permission.

Q. Is there a difference between dissent, professional obligation and whistleblowing? (Are you obligated to make ethical breaches public? How far do you go?)

We’ve talked about the whole topic of whistleblowing in years past and the poignant points are as valid today as they always have been. Today’s question, I think, highlights the subtle differences of how we perceive three names for the same thing.

In all professions, whether medicine, law, engineering or one of the others, there is room for professionals to discuss, and even argue forcibly, for one option over another. But, the argument is meant to be conducted among peers in the appropriate forum.

A good example is the use of trade magazines, professional meetings or online forums. The learned societies provide another forum for discussion. The intent, as supported by the typical Code of Ethics, is to focus on the technical details and avoid personal attack. Often, no clear winner emerges, but the two (or more) viewpoints have been given an airing. In its most elementary format, one professional directly contacts the other and makes his/her concerns known.

The professional, when working within his area of expertise, and under his/her convictions also has a professional responsibility to report issues of public safety or other serious consequences to the proper authority. Sometimes that is the job supervisor, project owner or perhaps a government authority.

Many examples are available to illustrate how a professional has identified some problem midway through a project and has ultimately saved the day by reporting the issue and working to make corrections, often at possible professional peril. The story of William LeMessurier’s use of innovative structural design and the design implications of quartering winds in tall buildings is an example. The seemingly disastrous findings that predicted the under-construction skyscraper would fail led to the opportunity to alter the design, save the building and even keep the liability insurers happy.

When the efforts to exercise one’s professional obligation fall on deaf ears, the issue may become one of whistleblowing. Often called “peep and weep,” these cases often carry a high price for the professional who pursues the problem.

Instead of being commended for using skill and concern to preserve safety, the professionals are often vilified for adversely affecting the overall project cost, timeline or ultimate success. These are cases that often bring a chill to the reader, often tragically after the fact.

The January 2012 death of Roger Boisjoly is a reminder. A mechanical engineer with a long career in the aerospace industry, he identified the likely failure of booster rocket seals during cold weather launches of the Challenger space shuttle. His well-substantiated protestations up to the last minute before launch were overridden by management and the deadly results were observed by all moments later. Boisjoly spent years after coping with feelings of guilt and depression, agonizing whether he had done enough to make his concerns known. He was also shunned by those in the business who thereafter identified him as a whistleblower; someone to be avoided at all costs.

There is no easy answer to how far a professional should go to address his/her concerns. The study of ethics is full of examples of professionals who went too far and sacrificed their careers. On the other hand, there are cases where the insistence of the professional has changed the course of a project or policy and resulted in enhanced safety or living conditions for thousands. The one advantage of the formal study of ethics is that part of the study gives the professional a decision making framework with which to evaluate the dilemmas of the seemingly impossible choices.cce


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