Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Official blog of the Lehigh University Chemical Engineers

Ethics

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I have a class named Professional Development (ChE 179) which meets once a week for two hours. It’s basically a seminar which discusses aspects of working in industry and becoming a chemical engineer, there are no equations or math involved. For the first few weeks of the class, we covered a lot of information about summer internships, REU, and intellectual property. You can check out some of my earlier posts in which I discussed the class. The topic of conversation has transitioned to ethics in the workplace. When I’m working on a math problem or chemical reaction question there is one right answer, one way to do the problem, but ethics aren’t as cut and dry. People have differing opinions and views, sometimes it’s difficult to come to a consensus when discussing an ethical conundrum. In class, we examined several scenarios and considered the ethical concerns of the situation.

In order to set a foundation for rules and regulations, a code of ethics is established. Unfortunately, there is not a single set of ethics to be followed by all engineers. Companies will likely set their own code and there are several national ethic codes created by organizations and institutes. Electrical engineers established the IEEE code, while chemical engineers through the AIChE created their own code. Check it out here: http://www.aiche.org/about/code-ethics

Clearly, there are an assortment of codes and rules, but which one is right? The codes are all very similar so I think it is possible to establish a cumulative set of regulations by taking ideas from all the published code of ethics. Here in lies the issue concerning ethics, there is not one accepted list of regulations and ideologies. This causes ambiguity and also makes it tough to establish procedure for doling out punishments when laws are broken. When you hear about ethical issues, it’s usually because a company broke rules or an accident occurred. We looked at several instances of negligence on the part of an institution causing accidents and distress.

In the 90’s, computers were taking off like wild fire and Intel was the leading hardware producer. Intel chips are immensely complex and integrated, so there are always some sort of bug or issues, but usually it doesn’t affect the user. Intel produced a Pentium chip which had some defects, but the defects were minuscule. However, Intel did not inform the public of the issue nor replace the product. They assumed that the bug defect would not cause any harm because the magnitude of error was very small. Intel had no idea if the user was writing a Word document or designed a space shuttle, they needed to notify the public. The discussion of the Intel issue centered around when the public needed to be notified and how to handle malfunctioning products.

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Another article covered explained the disaster which was the Columbia space shuttle accident. Much like the Challenger explosion 20 years earlier, the cause of the Columbia accident can be attributed to negligence of the engineers and managers. They did not follow a code of ethics and it led to the death of several astronauts. During takeoff, foam that held the fuel tanks broke off and hit the wing of the shuttle. This caused some of the ceramic covering to break off. Ceramic is used because it is a very good insulator and protects the shuttle during reentry in which temperatures are extremely high. Since the ceramic was damaged, the wing broke apart during reentry, the pilot lost control of the shuttle, and the ship tore apart and all passengers were killed. The issue with foam breaking off had occurred in other launches, but it never caused a problem. The engineers assumed that is was benign, and it would not cause distress because it never did in the past. There were also no safety precautions for fixing an issue in space. NASA could have instituted a procedure to fix problems in space or send up a rescue crew. Unfortunately, oversight by managers and engineers led to the crash. One interesting question posed was; There were 2 accidents in 113 flight launches, is this acceptable risk? Space shuttles are complex systems and incredibly intricate, but complacency from engineers can never by used a blame for an accident. I have enjoyed learning about ethics and will absolutely need to apply it to my own career.

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Author: Ben Dunmire

I am a sophomore Chemical Engineering major at Lehigh. On campus, I am the president of Club Baseball and a member of AIChE and NSCS. Outside of school, I enjoy the outdoors, fishing, and any type of athletic activity. You can reach me at bcd216@lehigh.edu.

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