As opposed to personal morality, engineering ethics is professional ethics as it sets the standards for professional practice. It helps students deal with issues they face in a professional practice since Engineering is something that engineers do and what they do has profound effects on others. Just like in law and medicine, engineering ethics education in professional responsibilities should be part of professional education in engineering. The media gave attention to cases such as the Exxon oil spill which aroused the need to teach ethical issues in engineering.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989, when Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker, bound for Long Beach, California, struck Prince William Sound’s reef and spilled between 260,000 and 750,000 barrels of crude oil. It was one of the most devastating human caused environmental disasters. Prince William resided in a remote place only accessible by helicopter, plane and boat which made the government and industry unable to respond. The region is a habitat for sea otters, seabirds, salmon and seals. The oil covered 2100 km of coastline. The ship was carrying approximately 55 million US gallons of oil, of which about 32 million gallons were spilled into the Prince William Sound (Cultler par. 5).
Several factors have been identified as contributing to the incident
- The Exxon Shipping Company failed to supervise the master and provide a rested and sufficient crew for Exxon Valdez. It was found out that this occurred frequently in the industry, requiring a safety recommendation to Exxon and the industry.
- The third mate failed to maneuver the vessel, perhaps due to fatigue or overworking
- The company failed to properly maintain the Raytheon Collision Avoidance System (RAYCAS) radar, which could have alerted the third mate on an impending collision by detecting the ‘radar reflection’.
- The captain was confirmed to be asleep when the ship crashed in Prince William Sound’s reef.
Immediate effects of the incident were the deaths of seabirds, otters, salmon and herring eggs. Subsequent reduction of the population of ocean animals was seen including stunted growth in pink salmon populations. There was decreased resident and non-resident vacation pleasure visitor traffic in the spill-affected areas due to lack of available visitor services (accommodation, charter boats and air taxis).
This disaster had profound effects on engineers which forced the profession to respond to the shortcomings in terms of technical and construction practice as well as improve ethical standards. Young professionals get caught by surprise when faced with an ethical problem in their professional practice. Thus, having seriously thought about such a problem, they may handle it well. When students analyze key ethical concepts that are relevant to their profession, other concepts come to mind including quality, efficiency, public health and safety, risk/benefit analysis, environmental harm truthfulness, trustworthiness only to mention but a few.
In addition, students are encouraged to take their responsibility seriously. The exercise of engineering expertise is the provision of useful services to employers, clients, customers and the public. Engineers should not only be concerned with the technical content and substance of their work but also their ethical responsibility. The goal of teaching engineering ethics is to familiarize the student with the tragedies, disasters and scandals in which engineers are major players.
Learning engineering ethics has increased students sensitivity to ethical issues by making them, aware that they have the responsibility of resolving ethical problems. Exposure to a particular problem increases the likelihood that the student will see a problem of that sort when it arises on the job.
Cleveland Cultler, Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, The Encyclopedia Of Earth, Boston University Press, Retrieved April 30th 2012.
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