The cover story of this week’s print edition of ENR is Cost and Conscience: What the Gulf tells us about unlicensed engineering and industry exemptions. The timing is interesting as on November 4th, I made a presentation to the Pennsylvania Society of Professional Engineers Philadelphia Chapter. The gist of that talk, The Industrial Exemption – What It Is – What It Is Not, was that laws defining and restricting the practice of engineering to professional engineers are made by various state legislatures in an extremely political process. 

Therefore, the New Jersey statute creates an “industrial exemption” for telecommunications companies, while Texas and Florida create such exemptions specifically for NASA. Of course we all know what happened when the public relations department of NASA overrode their chief engineer, who had prohibited the launch of the Challenger as being unacceptably dangerous. But federal dollars to the State of Florida are federal dollars.   

I am proud to be a Professional Engineer. Any profession requires the professional to put the interests of the client ahead of personal interests. But the client is paying us for this forbearance. Only the professional engineer is required to put the “health, safety, property and welfare” of the entire public ahead of that of that paying client. All the more reason why special interests may desire to lobby legislators to avoid these gatekeepers who refuse to do what is requested, even at the risk of job dismissal, or by consultants who refuse any offered price. 

As the print article alludes, another great advantage of requiring a professional engineer wherever there is a potential of danger to the public is that this creates a clear overriding check – the buck stops here. This aspect of one person being given authority and held responsible for the public health, safety, property and welfare has value even if that person were not a trained engineer. Who exactly was responsible for the Deepwater Horizon well design and installation and supervision thereof? Nobody. Who exactly was responsible for the Ford Pinto gas tank design? Nobody. But who exactly was responsible for review of shop drawings for the Hyatt Regency Walkway? And that error is now taught in every engineering school in the world and hopefully will not be made again. 

In my review of the licensing laws of many states for my November presentation, I noted that the so called “industrial exemption” was limited (at least arguably) whenever the legislature understood a danger to public health or safety. The relaxation of standards if only the property or “welfare” of the public may be endangered is interesting and could be the subject of another discussion. I find the line between mere property and personal health and safety to often be somewhat blurred.   

The review by a professional engineer is not a guarantee. People do make mistakes, and despite a program of multiple reviews, some mistakes get by. However, the professional engineer who fails to properly make reasonable review, or inspection, faces loss of license, to not again be given the authority or responsibility of “the buck stops here.” Perhaps if the Governor of a State, who signs off on a licensing law that foreseeably allows dangerous activity without a clearly defined person who has such authority and responsibility, should be to be that person – to never again be given the authority and responsibility to protect the public.