As members of a licensed profession, engineers are required to abide by their regulators’ codes of ethics. While enforced through regulatory action, these codes, which extend beyond particular practice to more general principles governing decisions and behaviour, are designed so that engineers have a model for holding themselves accountable when it comes to the protection of the public.

Regardless of specifics, jurisdictions’ engineering codes of ethics share a common purpose: they establish a set of principles for professional conduct that go further than legal and regulatory requirements. They demonstrate to the public that engineers are held to a high standard of conduct in their work. They also, in many cases, form the basis of one’s identity as an engineer. As part of Engineers Canada work to advance national collaboration, the Public Guideline on the Code of Ethics represents a synthesis of codes across jurisdictions—no engineer in Canada is accountable to the guideline specifically, but it does represent principles common to each jurisdiction.

Among key areas of overlap across jurisdictions, engineers must hold paramount public welfare. Additionally, they must only undertake work in areas in which they are competent, they must avoid conflicts of interest—disclosing where they cannot—and they must report, to employers or regulators, when they believe that works or individuals are acting in violation of their ethical codes.

Putting ethics into practice

Through legislation, bylaws, or guidelines, depending on the context, regulators provide engineers with guidance on how to apply the codes in their day-to-day engineering work. Indeed, even prior to licensure, ethics is often an integral part of engineering education.

“It is valuable to embed the concept and practice of engineering ethics in other courses, labs, exam preparation, and more,” said Andrew Gadsden, PhD, P.Eng., an Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at McMaster University, “because although people have some internal ethics built into them, having it reinforced in other course work and then married with the Code of Ethics helps safeguard public welfare.”

Marcel O’Gorman, a Professor of English Language and Literature and Director of the Critical Media Lab at the University of Waterloo, who teaches ethics courses to engineering students, said that students are interested in ethics, and want to know even more than the introduction they get in their undergraduate engineering studies.  

The evolution of engineering ethics

As science, technology, and engineering continue to evolve, and as calls for socially responsible business practices evolve, new ethical considerations can come to light in engineering practice.

“It seems that ethics to the engineering community is historically rooted in safety. But it might get more challenging to determine how engineering ethics integrate to technology, such as online security and privacy, or even toward issues of mental health,” said O’Gorman. He noted that ethical considerations also come into play for engineering environmental work, for example in regard to the environmental impacts of mining practices, or in the uses of mined materials themselves.  

Do engineers still have a responsibility when it comes to materials that accelerate climate change or be used to unethical ends? Notably, Engineers and Geoscientists enhanced guidance around environmental responsibilities in its recent revisions to the province’s engineering code of ethics. This type of change may represent a shift to longer-term thinking with regard to engineering ethics.

Ryan Melsom, PhD, Manager, Qualifications at Engineers Canada, notes that “the definition of public safety itself has evolved in recent years, to encompass a more proactive, multi-generational, socially minded approach to what constitutes ‘safe.’”  

In any situation, it’s important that engineers weigh progress with reflection, explains Mark Abbott, Director of the Engineering Change Lab.  

“Something might not be breaking the rule of not causing any harm,” notes Abbott, “but has the process had checkpoints with ethics?” He notes it’s about balancing the urgency for progress with reflection, not going too far each way or the other since a risk is also analysis-paralysis. “We want to bring both sides together, seeking responsibilities, and taking action efficiently but with thoughtful considerations to ensure both sides can meet in the middle.”

The evolution of Engineers Canada Public Guideline on the Code of Ethics

Under the guidance of regulators, the Canadian Engineering Qualifications Board of Engineers Canada is currently reviewing the Engineers Canada Public Guideline on the Code of Ethics. Regulators recognize that, while fundamental to the profession, ethics must continue to be articulated in relation to the public interest. This ensures not only relevancy of the profession, but an acknowledgement of the idea that to truly protect the public safety, one must appreciate the fact that “the public” evolves over time.

“What was considered ‘the public’ 100 years ago, has shifted to encompass not only a more diverse Canada, but also an idea of the future public,” notes Melsom. “While individual regulators will maintain codes based on their jurisdictional differences and requirements, the CEQB’s revision to the guideline represents a national synthesis of common concerns among engineering bodies.”

As with all work of the Qualifications Board, national collaboration will be the key to the work’s success. Any proposed changes to the guideline will be shared with regulators for their input, and ultimately the revisions will be approved by the Engineers Canada Board, which represents a body of national perspectives.