Do concerns about liability limit the expansion of ethical engineering practice?

The American Society of Civil Engineers has taken many steps to transform engineering and champion infrastructure. In 2009, the society produced a road map for the future of the profession; just recently, it produced a report documenting the economic costs of diminished spending on infrastructure. But a transformation so sweeping is bound to have rough spots, just as some of the most ardent supporters of a revolution are destined to be disap-

pointed. Officially, ASCE policy supports engineers doing everything possible to promote safety. Making that happen in practice is apparently much more difficult, according to a recent ASCE journal article.

The article, published in the April 2011 issue of ASCE's Journal of Leadership and Management in Engineering, says the society gradually withdrew support for a Prevention Through Design committee and finally broke off all formal ties to it last fall. Written by Professor T. Michael Toole, the article describes how ASCE's concerns mounted about the committee's efforts to develop ways to educate architects and engineers about jobsite safety and get past some of the liability barriers. The committee tended to favor collaborative design methods as best. While Toole and others worked to publicize the Prevention Through Design concept, ASCE staff and board members became more concerned about the liability issues. Even the idea that designing for accident prevention could reduce injuries, fatalities and insurance costs failed to convince ASCE to stay onboard, wrote Toole.

Protecting designers from costly legal claims is important, and Toole, a Bucknell University professor, can promote big ideas without worrying about survival. However, Toole worries, as all engineers should, that concern for pocketbook issues could undermine an innovation that may help save injuries and lives and fulfill part of ASCE's own vision for ethical engineering practice.

A separate safety initiative unconnected to ASCE and geared toward owners and contractors, the Sustainable Construction Safety and Health Rating System, may be easier for the industry to evaluate.

Developed by Sathy Rejendran and his advising professor, John Gambatese, for Rejendran's Ph.D. research at Oregon State University, the rating system embraces the idea that safety should be a part of any construction project's sustainability goals. Safety measures could include something as simple as designing a higher parapet or conducting worker drug and alcohol testing.

The rating system contains 50 safety and health elements that add up to 100 credits. It allots credit for each element, depending on the its effectiveness in preventing injuries and illnesses. At their website,, there is a calculator to assess a project's rating. Let us know on what you think of the system and how a similar system might help designers.