Engineering Ethics: Reviewing an Engineer’s Work

Reviewing Engineers

Joe, a structural engineer in the F.C.T – Abuja was briefed to prepare the design of a seven-storey steel frame building proposed for the city centre of Port Harcourt 600km away.  He completes the design; the client gets an approval and construction commences. However, few months into the construction, some steel beams appear excessively distorted. The client, out of concerns of bad design has decided to contact you to review Joe’s design. How would you approach this problem?

As a very competent engineer, you’d most likely, be able to spot errors and warnings of bad design. However, far from competence, to carry out independent checks on another engineer’s work, a reviewing engineer must strap out that natural tendency to just begin the process without recourse to the violation of any engineering ethics.

Reviews can be requested for several reasons. Either the review is an inherent part of the project design process, particularly for major/innovative projects or the review request is due to a probable design error as illustrated in the opening statement of this article. Reviews may also be required as part of the requirement of building codes and regulations. Whatever the case, there is a need to reflect on the ethical considerations.  

This article aims to address the key ethical questions that may arises when an engineer is contacted to review the work of another engineer.

Competence & Conflicting Interests

The instant concern in carrying out independent reviews has to do with competence and conflicting interests. Prior to beginning the process, the reviewing engineer must consider, if he has the required competence to undertake this review. They must be satisfied; they are competent in the specific field of engineering in dispute and that they possess the necessary and adequate resources to carry out the review.

Similarly, the reviewing engineer must be sure that, he doesn’t have any connection with the original design team. The main objective of requesting a review is almost always to establish any concerns of bad design. In situations whereby the review engineer has connections with the original designers, this could lead to a conflict of interest. The review engineer must raise these concerns with the client towards resolving the conflict or humbly decline the offer. A perceived conflict of interest is very likely to influence the outcome of the investigation and even where it does not, the veracity of the findings could remain perpetually suspect.

Scope of Work

At the start of any review, it is essential that the scope of work is agreed between the client, the checking engineer and the original engineer. Through-out the course of the review work, the scope may vary significantly. One of the points that must be established is whether the scope would be technical alone or cover every aspect of an engineer’s responsibility. In any case they should be an agreed scope of work.

The review engineer could make recommendations to the client on whether the scope of work need to be extended if the need arises. He also has a duty to warn (and discuss with) the original engineer, and then the client, of any health and safety issues that may be found. This duty exists whether or not it is explicitly stated in the scope of work. Warning other relevant parties may then also be necessary.

Ideally, the scope of work should include the original engineer’s risk assessment, it may also be considered a good practice to include any possible safety or health issue that may arise. Ultimately, the review engineer should not exceed the scope of work, it’s very easy to get ‘drawn in’ and start proposing solutions to problems and even helping to redesign the project. Unless, the scope of work allows for this, the usual procedure is for the review engineer to check the design and submit a report on it. Notwithstanding the fact that a proactive approach is always necessary. If the review engineer, upon conducting the review comes to believe that the original design was seriously faulty, it’s  a sound practice to recommend to the client to sought further opinion.

Ethical Consideration

Noticed we’ve conspicuously said all actions taken throughout the review process must be determined with the knowledge of the original designer. This is to ensure that the review is undertaken equitably, professionally and factually and not to intentionally damage the reputation of the original designer. The reviewing engineer should work in a positive and collaborative manner with the original engineer. This should be contained in the appointment letter or briefing of the review engineer.

The review engineer must also ensure that that the original engineer has been informed that the review will be taking place. After all, if you put yourself in the position of the engineer whose work is to be reviewed, you would be interested in knowing if another engineer has been appointed to review your work.

According to the IstructE guide on Code of Conduct, as it relates to an engineer employed to review the work of another engineer. The reviewing engineer should:

  • Act with integrity and fairness and in accordance with the principles of ethical behaviour
  • Undertake only those tasks and accept only those appointments for which they are competent
  • Not maliciously or recklessly injure or attempt to injure the reputation of another person
  • Avoid conflicts of interest.

However, we cannot fantasize that, there are exceptional cases where a client would request for a confidential review such as in legal disputes, where the review is held confidentially and the original engineer is not allowed to be in the know of the check. It has to be stressed that, such instances should really be exceptional, it is not standard practice. The reasons for confidentiality must be clear from the outset and the client should be informed that the report and conclusions are indeed confidential.  Where a confidential review has being undertaken, they should only be regarded as preliminary until the reviewing engineer has had a full dialogue with the original engineer and design team, and received all relevant information.

Contacting the Original Engineer

Having resolved issues relating to the confidentiality of the review. The reviewing engineer can proceed to contact the original engineer. It is usually beneficial to all parties that the review proceeds as a dialogue. The review should be conducted in a collaborative manner, liaising with the engineer whose work is in dispute and querying same before escalating. It’s very unlikely that a review engineer, would know as much as the original engineer who devoted a great deal of time and energy to producing the design. To this end, all nuances which may not be immediately recognizable or understood can only be resolved through collaborative efforts.

Before conducting the review, it’s very key that the reviewing engineer has all the facts about the design (the design brief, design codes, assumptions etc.). It’s very expected that the documents issued to the reviewing engineer initially might not contain all these information. For, instance the document may have being handed over by a lay person who has no knowledge of what the document should contain or neglect. Hence one of the vital steps after contacting the original engineer is to request further information which might only be disposed to him but which in any case is relevant to making the review a worthwhile endeavor.

The normal quality management processes must, of course, be followed in all dialogue. All meetings, phone calls, emails and other contacts (face-to face, Teams, Zoom, etc. with express consent), as well as any decisions agreed between the engineers, should be carefully recorded, in addition to logging information in and out, minuting of meetings, etc. The engineer whose work is being checked should be made explicitly aware that such records are being made and circulated. If records of meetings with them are circulated, particularly to their client, they should be invited to comment on draft records before they are more widely circulated.

Liability

The reviewing engineer needs to have appropriate professional indemnity insurance cover. Their liability should be only for the reviewing work that they have undertaken using reasonable skill and care. In the appointment, it is important that the extent of liability in contract is limited, preferably with a clear cap, and that this has been agreed with the client. There may also be liability in tort by the reviewing engineer to the original engineer and others.

The reviewing engineer’s liability for ‘fitness for purpose’ should be reviewed carefully. This is normally specifically excluded; it is rarely covered by professional indemnity insurance. This is important for design-and-build projects, which can include fitness-for-purpose clauses within the contractor’s contract. In these cases, the reviewing engineer may inadvertently pick up this higher-level duty of care by the reference in their appointment to the design-and-build contractor’s contract.

Report

In the end, the reviewing engineer is required to submit a report. This report should be clear, factual and professional. The reviewing engineer should not include idle talks, unnecessary or unverified opinions or anything defamatory.

All information received must be logged and, importantly, information that is not available must also be recorded and stated in the report. Often these lists develop during the review process as more information, or the lack of it, comes to light. Everything relevant in the review process should be recorded, e.g., any events where the original engineer has not been cooperative, the cooperation of other members of the design team, contact with building control, or any limitations on the engineer’s review.

All issues raised by the review process must be logged, including any resolution of issues, redesign, strengthening, the checks of any strengthening or improvement works, and issues that remain unresolved. Often this is done using a spreadsheet so that the process of raising an issue, discussions about it, and its resolution can be tracked.  Finally, the report (whether in draft or final form) should be sealed and submitted to the client alone. Copies should not be produced for other parties unless on instruction.

Also see: Engineering Ethics: Replacing an Engineer

Sources & Citations

  • Institution of Structural Engineers (2019) Code of conduct and guidance notes [Online] Available at: www.istructe.org/ about-us/IstructE-code-of-conduct/ (Accessed: January 2022)
  • Royal Academy of Engineering and Engineering Council (2017) Statement of Ethical Principles [Online] Available at: www. engc.org.uk/professional-ethics (Accessed: January 2022).
  • Metherall A. (2015) ICE Legal Note: Reviewing the work of another Engineer and replacing another Engineer [Online] Available at: www.ice.org.uk/knowledge-andresources/ best practice/reviewing the- work-of-another-engineer (Accessed: January 2022).

Thank You!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.