December 08, 2013
A Second Look at Safety
The Gulf oil spill has some in the engineering profession asking whether the industry exemption from state licensing laws is really such a good idea.
BY DANIELLE BOYKIN
For much of the spring and summer, the nation watched in dismay as oil gushed from a BP well into the Gulf of Mexico—an incident that may be one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. This disaster has highlighted the fragility of the environment and its connection to the health of the economy, and it has spurred debate about how Americans use energy resources.
The disaster has also given rise to serious questions about the proper levels of oversight of critical industries to protect the environment and the public. Within the engineering profession, the Gulf disaster is fueling long-burning discussions about the role of PEs within industry. Should industrial exemptions to state licensing laws be reviewed and changed to require more PEs in positions of responsible charge? How will the engineering profession address this issue? Will anything change?
In June, NSPE Executive Director Larry Jacobson issued a statement about the oil spill and licensed professional engineers. He stated that the only way that government and the public could have some assurance that industry is putting the public ahead of profit is, at a bare minimum, to require licensing for all engineers who provide engineering services that involve safeguarding life, health, or property.
The Department of the Interior is taking just such an approach. In June, the agency announced that it is now requiring PEs to sign off on plans when undersea rigs use a blowout preventer, the device that is believed to have failed, leading to the explosions and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.
The role of PEs in public safety, however, is not always recognized. David Whitman, P.E., president of the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying, says that "millions of Americans who will be affected by the oil spill could have benefited from requiring the parties responsible to secure a professional engineer's sealed approval."
Craig Musselman, P.E., chair of NSPE's Licensure & Qualifications for Practice Committee, says that some proponents of the industrial exemption believe that product liability laws are sufficient to protect the public. "They argue that product liability laws protect the public health, safety, and welfare, but that's a financial issue," he says. "No one is looking for an individual professional engineer to be responsible for automobiles or airplanes and to be financially liable. It's a matter of professional responsibility and liability."
The Licensure & Qualifications for Practice Committee will be examining industry exemptions across the nation. The committee will also be looking at the broader issue of whether the public health, safety, and welfare is adequately protected with respect to engineers who are functioning under the exemption. A subcommittee will be charged to research exemptions.
Musselman expects that there will be three categories of jurisdictions: jurisdictions with clear industrial exemptions in their statutes, jurisdictions with veiled industrial exemptions, and others that are completely silent on the issue. Musselman does not expect that the committee's work will result in a specific recommendation on the industrial exemption, but he sees it more as "the beginning of a thought process."
Preferred, But Not Required
"Today it seems to be preferred but not required," says Buchanan, owner of Power System Solutions. "When I started, the CEO was an engineer and now that has faded away. The engineer's role in upper management is not near the degree as it once was. They don't have the same amount of influence as they had in the past."
Buchanan says that discussions about this issue have gone on for the past year with leaders and members of NSPE's Professional Engineers in Industry interest group. "All of us that are involved in PEI are of the mind that there is certainly an advantage to having more [licensed] engineers in practice in industry, particularly at the management level where [critical] decisions are made," says Buchanan, PEI's immediate past chairman.
The presence and need for licensed engineers can vary from sector to sector within industry. NSPE member Michael Munday, P.E., recalls when he was a rare bird in the mining industry. "It appears that there are a lot more PEs floating around than there were 30 years ago because I think more folks have been encouraged to get their PE," says Munday, who serves as manager of permitting in the environmental services department with the Patriot Coal Corp. in Kentucky. "My company and other mining companies are more likely to have more PEs because there are so many daily requirements for a licensed engineer to certify and review to authorize documents and materials internally. This is in addition to all of the safety and environmental regulations that we have to abide by."
On its surface, promoting and encouraging licensure in industry is not a terribly controversial topic, but discussion of the industrial exemption and the appropriate course of action can be heated. "We are struggling with that because in the past there have been attempts to eliminate the industrial exemption in some states, and this has been met with a lot of resistance from industry," Buchanan explains. Now is the time, he believes, to convince business leaders that licensing has a place in industry.
PEI Chair Jonn Nebbe received his PE license 10 years ago and has reaped great benefits from it, even if it's not required for his employment in industry. "The biggest benefit has been instant credibility both technically and ethically," says Nebbe, who serves as chief metallurgist for Eaton Corp. in Belmond, Iowa. "That's what I also hear from my peers who work in industries that don't require a PE license."
Nebbe believes that as this discussion about licensure in industry and industrial exemptions takes place, rank-and-file engineers need to be engaged and have their say. "One of the concerns within the engineering community is that some engineers wonder, 'If I don't get my PE, does that mean that I'm not a competent engineer?'" he says.
PEI recently surveyed NSPE members to get a view of their thoughts on licensure in industry. The survey revealed the following:
When it comes to industry exemptions, Nebbe thinks that the national mood may dictate changes that take place. "I think this is going to be driven from the national perspective. If it gets pushed by the federal government, then the states would at some point jump on board," he says. "Ultimately if you look at what all engineers do, their end product almost always affects the general public. So it's hard to say that this group of engineers doesn't need to be licensed. It's almost similar to a practicing lawyer or doctor."
Making the Case
"My belief is that an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is not necessarily the business case that points to the eradication of the industrial exemption. Engineering is far more diverse and complex where one has to hold a strategic review," says Grubbe, who is owner and principal of Operations and Safety Solutions LLC and is serving on the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. "One of things that is important to remember, as we take a look at this, is that there are so many things that engineers do correctly without any major issue. What's unfortunate is, no matter what the industry, that when there are engineering or technical mistakes made, combined with managerial concerns, when all of that rolls up together, the failures become very public. There's a lot going on that's right."
Grubbe is supportive of efforts by organizations such NSPE and NCEES to periodically review industrial exemptions in statutes whenever appropriate. But she is adamant that industry representatives need a place at the table. "This needs to be done in concert with industrial representation only because it will affect industry in ways that well-intentioned professionals can't imagine," she says. "We need to engage industrial leaders and take a serious look at it with them."
Grubbe believes that using safety as part of the business case is critical to positive changes in industry. Industry executives must develop a view that safety is a value and not a cost. "Safety is an investment in the future [of the company]. Historically, companies that do not pay attention to safety in the long run usually aren't as successful. That starts to become a business case," she says.
Engineers, whether they are licensed or not, no matter their level in the firm, must become a key part of creating a positive safety culture, says Grubbe. "The best thing that somebody in my position can do is to ask good questions, which enables the firm's executives to assess their own values and actions," she says. "Engineers can advise and ask good questions to show people that there are other ways of thinking."
As discussions about how to address industry licensure requirements commence, Buchanan says there are a number of things that the professional engineering community can agree upon in order to encourage licensure. The first step is to increase outreach to engineering students and young professionals. "We need to get the word out to graduating engineers that they should be looking at [licensing] right after graduation or prior to graduation," he says.
Munday believes that the best way to promote licensure is for veteran engineers to take out the time and mentor young professionals. "If they haven't been licensed yet, take the opportunity to encourage them to try to pursue that. It's so vitally important to their future well-being," he says. "It's also a professional courtesy to want to see other engineers accomplish what you have. It's good for the growth of your company, it's good for the growth of industry, and the profession."
Buchanan foresees that the changing U.S. economy may also convince engineers in industry to consider licensure because it may provide more job security. "Licensure creates a lot more flexibility for career opportunities down the road, which is a great thing to have when companies are downsizing and reexamining what they need in the way of engineering expertise," he says. "If you want to go from industry into a consulting area, you don't have that flexibility unless you're licensed. If you want to go into business for yourself, you may not have that opportunity unless you're licensed."
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