Ethics in Electrical Design

Oct 1, 2000 12:00 PM, By Dale Rummer

Don't let outside pressures corrupt your professional obligations. A lapse in judgment can lead to grave repercussions.

You pride yourself on delivering safe designs that lower the costs of construction, maintenance, and operation. However, sometimes your efforts to maximize performance and reduce the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) run into opposition. For example, you want isolation transformers on your UPS, but your manager considers that option too expensive. You want to double the size of a neutral because of high harmonic loads, but your client says no. Why the gap between their standards and yours?

The market demands faster delivery at the lowest cost. To meet this demand, managers may insist on poor designs. This is rarely due to an ethical lapse on their part. The problem typically stems from technological apathy or a lack of specific technical knowledge - both of which you can overcome.

Adequate designs never compromise safety. Good designs provide the expected functionality or level of performance. But the best designs balance cost, delivery, and performance - without compromising safety. Unfortunately, decision-makers often give cost and delivery too much attention. Thus, the final design is often inadequate. To prevent this from happening, you must guide others to approve design decisions they initially disagreed with. This is not an easy task. Sometimes, resistance to this guidance can cost you your job - but not if you play your cards right. Let's look at some of the best practices to see how your ethical design can prevail.

Codes and standards. Safety is foremost in ethical designs. You can't ensure safety by blindly adhering to codes and standards, which are minimal, universally applicable requirements. Specific situations may require exceeding these minimums to assure safety. One example is oversizing the neutral for a high-harmonic load to reduce overheating. When to exceed applicable codes and standards is a matter of judgment. Your judgment may come under fire if it warrants extra cost. You may need to show the costs of not going beyond the National Electrical Code (NEC). You can also demonstrate the advantages of exceeding the Code (see the sidebar below). In Art. 90-1(b), the NEC provides for an adequate design, not necessarily a good one.

Weighing possible negative outcomes. In this business, you must recognize that politics and personalities are real considerations. For example, suppose your boss or client (we'll refer to them interchangeably) wants to weaken your design. Prepare for an initial discussion by determining the impact of the proposed changes. Suppose neither of you budges. You'll have to decide if the potential design liability is worth escalation. If so, implement the steps shown in the sidebar, below, and then ask your HR department for counsel on how to proceed. Make sure you play fair with your boss. Don't be "sneaky," and never make the issue personal. Ultimately, you may want to weigh the need to escalate the issue, quit your job, or decline work against the following four forms of liability:

Safety liability - personally and criminally liable. Most cities have a publicly accessible law library where you can look up past case histories. You'll see many examples where courts "pierce the corporate veil" to hold engineers and their bosses (including board members) personally and criminally liable for unsafe designs. You can't ignore safety concerns and hide behind an employer.

Here's an example. Suppose your boss says to install 400 MCM, where the Code requires 500 MCM, at a high-rise hotel. Are you willing to go to prison on manslaughter charges, if this results in fire and fatalities? You don't have to install that 400 MCM - no matter what your boss says. In fact, you are legally bound not to. However, if the Code requires 400 MCM and you want 500 MCM, your ability to say no is less clear and rests on how you can document the inadequacy of the smaller wire.

Reliability liability - personally and civilly liable. Kansas City, Mo.-based Capital Electric positions itself as a company whose work is unquestionably reliable. Take, for example, the company's transformer installation in Photo 1, on page 24 (not available online). There is no question about the bracing - it far exceeds minimum requirements. Should you "over-engineer" a design or simply meet codes? If your company has a reliability focus, then you over-engineer to protect a company asset: the reliability reputation.

Performance liability - loss of sales, revenue, and jobs. You can cut corners to save money, without compromising safety or reliability. But, an underperforming design won't bring repeat sales. For example, an engineer designed an automated warehouse at an appliance plant. To reduce the bid price, he undersized the conveyor motors. During startup testing, everything worked. But when heavy appliances rolled down the line, the conveyor barely crawled. The motors literally lacked the horsepower. This hurt plant output considerably. What would you do, as the client?

TCO liability - loss of customer base. Suppose you take shortcuts to win a contract for a standby power system. The batteries need replacement every 14 months because you undersized the ventilation, chose cheap batteries, and didn't consider maintenance. Your competitor's system needs new batteries every 72 months. Who has the advantage? In Photo 2, on page 24 (not available online), an electrician questions whether the depth of a panel box will allow for reasonable maintenance by the customer. What would be your reaction, if you were the customer?

What if a client asks you to violate laws or ethics? No company can force you to act illegally or unethically. First, assume the client is unaware of the illegality or breach of ethics. Identify the problem, what you should do instead, and the possible impact and ramifications of the problem. Refer to supporting documentation such as the NEC. If the problem will affect you, assert your legal and ethical responsibilities to the client, your company, the public, your reputation, and your conscience. All codes of engineering ethics feature words such as "shall hold paramount the health, safety and well being of the public." No minor emphasis there.

Document everything. When you perceive any question of ethics, legality, or liability, document every discussion with a simple log, and don't use e-mail. Record the date, names, and titles of involved parties, and major points made. Based on such logs, employees have successfully sued unethical employers. The log is a key item in your defense. If the contents are serious, keep copies locked away offsite.

Remember the big picture. Your duty to produce safe designs is clear and unviolable. But, when issues of reliability, performance, and TCO are in question, your duty is less clear. If you informed your client of all pertinent facts, the decision no longer rests with you - "the customer is always right." Good engineering is not about proving you are right or building the best design. It's about balancing cost, delivery, and performance - without compromising safety. What that balance should be isn't always your decision, but the customer needs all the information you can provide for everyone's well being.


Sidebar: Prudent Measures

To protect yourself and your company from liability, don't adopt an "I'll show you" attitude. Instead, leverage your company's own self-interest by following these guidelines:

• Adhere to established codes and standards. Following the NEC and other applicable standards eliminates 90% of liability potential. This is true in a technical sense, as well as a legal one.

• Adhere to good design principles. The NEC is a minimum for "the practical safeguarding of persons and property." It's not a design handbook. Thus, if you design an inefficient power distribution system, "I followed Code" is no defense.

• Justify additional costs (TCO, other benefits). Managers are not always wrong to disagree with engineers. Walking through the justification process allows both parties to determine the acceptable level of risk.

• Communicate with all concerned parties. Don't assume everyone has the same facts or level of risk acceptance - or understands them equally. It's possible you are misinformed. Get all the facts in front of affected parties.

• Disclose deficiencies and offer possible solutions. If a well-informed client accepts a defined level of performance deterioration, you have no performance liability. But, if you sell the customer on a design without full disclosure, you could be on the hook. This is a good way to give the client a full disclosure of all options and related costs.

• Use measurements and objective material. Courts follow the "should have known" philosophy. They assume you should have known to take measurements, follow codes, and practice sound engineering. In EC&M's March, 1998 cover story, Jean-Pierre Wolf presented eight case studies where Electro-Test, Inc. successfully based recommendations on objective measurements and standards. Facts speak louder than opinions do.

• Use a cooperative "how can we solve this" approach. Don't assume a tone of moral superiority. You must help others make informed decisions, which may not agree with yours. When others feel no political pressure and don't sense an ego-driven agenda from you, the result is usually synergy.

• Follow the "need to know" principle. When disclosing potentially harmful information, provide it only to those who must know. This fair way to conduct business helps keep politics and personalities out of the picture. One contracting firm's field supervisor discovered a safety problem in a client's plant. He wanted to report the problem to OSHA, but his boss intervened. They showed the client the problem, and suggested a fix, which the client implemented immediately. Had the contractor called OSHA, the company might have denied there was a problem because of the politics involved. Always give the other party a chance to address the issues.


Sidebar: Beyond the Code

This author reviewed an electrical installation servicing a group of plastic injection molding machines on a 480V, 3-phase supply. If the machines lose power for even a short time, the plastic sets up inside them. The downtime and expense of getting back into production are significant. He recommended installing GFCI breakers on each machine and on the bus duct that fed all of the machines. Thus, a ground fault on any machine would take only that machine offline. The GFCI on the feed to the bus duct would protect the bus from burn down. The Code requires GFCI on feeder circuits rated at more than 1000A. In this case, where the rating was only 800A, exceeding the Code allowed for an adequate design.