Continuing education requirements are a formal recognition that we must constantly strive to remain knowledgeable and capable to best serve our clients and the public good. Along with our original P.E. license, this is our tacit contract with the public that we are competent to perform our duties as professionals. I recently was introduced to a phrase that I believe exemplifies the gap between our professional activities and how they are perceived by the public. Aside from our state-issued certificates, we might ask ourselves if we have a “social license” to practice engineering.
When I first contemplated this concept, it seemed trivial. Why would engineering not be socially acceptable? Certainly, there are many industries that face great social pressures to improve their activities. Environmental and human rights issues have become regular topics among energy, manufacturing, and mining companies’ leadership ranks. Engineering would seem, for the most part, to be able to take comfort in that our ethical canons obligate us to service before profit. Who could argue against that?
Apparently, quite a few of our fellow citizens don’t see it this way. The likes of BP and Halliburton may garner more than their fair share of headlines, but nearly 30 engineering firms have been quietly defending themselves against a series of lawsuits deriving not from their paid work, but as volunteers and Good Samaritans. I had the opportunity to meet one of their representatives, Ramon Gilsanz, P.E., S.E., during a presentation about his personal struggle.
Gilsanz, with an engineering office in New York City, was personally affected by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Within a day of the World Trade Center’s destruction, he, along with countless volunteer engineers, mobilized to assist with the rescue, recovery, stabilization, and investigation of the disaster site. The outpouring of support and expertise, especially of those with structural and construction management backgrounds, was vital to accomplishing an efficient clean-up with no further loss of life. It was exactly the humanitarian response that the public should expect from us, and which we should not hesitate to provide should the need arise. It should have remained a moment of pride for all involved and for the profession as a whole.
But as the smoke cleared, it was apparent that more insidious damage had already been done — perhaps years before the actual event. A public that had grown accustomed to certainty, safety, and relative shelter from events like these was suddenly faced with an unstable and dangerous environment. Unfortunately, the urgent nature of the site meant that thousands of workers were exposed to dust-contaminated air, resulting in cases of illnesses and injuries. Their recourse is one that has become all-too-familiar in America: lawsuits.
Your colleagues and peers who were involved in the World Trade Center, from its original design to its removal from the site, are the recipients not of thanks, but blame. Nearly 20,000 plaintiffs, from emergency responders and city workers to other humanitarian volunteers and contractors, have collectively decided that these engineers must pay. The very engineers who responded to this unprecedented disaster and likely saved lives by volunteering their expertise are the unfortunate targets of these time-consuming, expensive proceedings. Even more unfortunate is that many engineers subsequently refused to volunteer when another catastrophe, in the form of Hurricane Katrina, occurred years later. We will likely never know the extent of the benefits that continue to be lost due to these lawsuits.
Many engineers likely view this as merely one more example of something they already suspected — that the public’s respect of the profession has declined markedly in the last 50 years. But this is understandable given that most do not deal directly with engineers on a regular basis. Rather, this may be a big step in the direction of losing our “social license” to practice engineering. Respect is one thing, but trust is something much greater. These lawsuits indicate that, at least in certain parts of the country, the public simply does not trust that engineers will do the best work they can under even the most extreme circumstances. Perhaps our lament of a lack of respect is misplaced. If this is the future of engineering, respect is the least of our worries.
For more information about the WTC lawsuits, visit www.emergencylegislation.com.
Jason Burke, P.E., MPEM, is a project manager in Billings, Mont. Find additional information at http://pmug.wordpress.com.