Score One for Public Safety

November 2012

NSPE Today: Outlook
Score One for Public Safety


NSPE President Dan Wittliff, P.E., F.NSPEThere are times when the public's attention focuses on engineering because of some disaster involving an engineered structure or process. In many cases, the disaster involves a structure designed by a professional engineer, such as a bridge or public building.
However, there are times when processes and structures designed or overseen by unlicensed engineers fail. When these structures fail in particularly catastrophic ways, the public and their elected representatives, as well as regulators at all levels, want to know why and what can be done to prevent the failure from happening again.
Deepwater Horizon Explosion and Oil Spill
An example of such an incident is the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent response. When this 53,000-ton floating semisubmersible drilling platform exploded, 11 people were killed and 16 were injured.
In addition to these casualties, the ensuing spill resulted in the release of about 5 million barrels of crude oil from the wellhead over the next 86 days and the contamination of about 500 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline. The spill caused tens of billions of dollars in damages.
NSPE's Role in Developing New Rules
The Department of the Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) issued a final rule in August 2012 that makes permanent the additional safety measures authorized after the explosion and oil spill in 2010. The rule specifically requires licensed professional engineers to be more involved in the design and certification of offshore oil wells.
NSPE General Counsel Arthur Schwartz and several NSPE members provided comments to the Chemical Safety Board in December 2010 that professional engineers should supervise all engineering design, operations, and maintenance of offshore oil wells. These experts emphasized that PEs are bound by a code of ethics to make decisions only in their area of expertise and to protect the public health and safety above all other concerns.
New Rules Increase PEs' Role
The National Research Council also recently advised the BSEE to seek consultation to develop a "culture of safety" in addition to implementing inspections, operator audits, bureau audits, key performance indicators, and a whistleblower program to increase safety. The rule requires that PEs:

  • Be involved in the well casing and cementing design process;
  • Certify that well casings and cementing are appropriate for expected wellbore conditions;
  • Certify well abandonment designs and procedures; and
  • Certify that well designs include two independent barriers in the center wellbore and all annuli.

The rule also requires independent third parties to conduct blowout preventer inspections. These third parties must be licensed PEs, professional engineering firms, or technical classification societies.
Engineer's Magnificent Obsession
We engineers worry about being right on all things engineering—so much so that our nonengineer colleagues and spouses might say that it borders on obsessive. Many times over the course of my career, I found myself waking up in the middle of the night feeling compelled to double- or triple-check some calculation or paragraph to verify the correctness of the numbers or statements.
There's plenty of reason for this magnificent obsession. Almost all of us who choose an engineering education come from the top 10%?20% of high school students. Consequently, we were pretty confident in our intellectual capabilities and not used to making mistakes. To counter the potential negative consequences of over confidence from the time we entered engineering school, engineering faculty seemed to focus on demonstrating just how fallible we humans can be.
To emphasize this concern about the impact of our engineering decisions on public safety, there is an old saying in our profession that doctors bury their mistakes one at a time while engineers bury theirs by the busload. It is this grim awareness that pushes us toward zero mistakes in all that we do.
Engineering Practice Acts and Industrial Exemptions
This quest is canonized in the Engineers' Creed and formalized in state licensing laws. One of the four pledges made in the Engineers' Creed is "To place service before profit, the honor and standing of the profession before personal advantage, and the public welfare above all other considerations." State engineering practice acts are typically predicated on the need to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. These practice acts, under the full force and penalty of law, require professional engineers to be competent and conduct their affairs ethically.
Unfortunately, these laws include numerous exemptions from engineering licensure. Generally, these exemptions are referred to as "industrial" exemptions, owing mainly to the concessions made to corporations in the first third of the 20th century to get the engineering practice acts passed into law. Over the years, these exemptions have been adjusted and, in some cases, expanded to meet the changing needs of each state.
The purpose of my column is not to vilify unlicensed engineering graduates working under the industrial exemptions. Instead, I believe this regulatory response to a national disaster serves to recognize the value of the additional due diligence offered by PEs and their commitment, both personal and legal, to the ethical practice of engineering. It's a shame that this positive awareness came only after such a catastrophic tragedy.