Conversations on Engineering Ethics: Canon I

Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

This is the first of the fundamental canon of the Engineering Code of Ethics from the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE). It is also the same or similarly worded first fundamental canon of Code of Ethics from professionally engineering societies like and American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Having put this canon first and foremost must mean that it is important, the most important idea that we as engineers should uphold in our activities. However, what does it actually mean?

ASCE’s Code of Ethic’s expands on this idea, explaining:

…an engineer is expected not only to protect the public in his or her own work but also to take action if he or she has knowledge that any other person’s actions may undermine the public welfare, a requirement that may include reporting such actions to a government authority with the power to act on behalf of the public.

NSPE further expands highlighting six points ranging from notifying employers/clients/ authorities about dangerous or illegal situations to document approval when engineers are engaged in the fulfillment of their professional duties.

If engineers’ judgment is overruled under circumstances that endanger life or property, they shall notify their employer or client and such other authority as may be appropriate.

Engineers shall approve only those engineering documents that are in conformity with applicable standards.

Engineers shall not reveal facts, data, or information without the prior consent of the client or employer except as authorized or required by law or this Code.

Engineers shall not permit the use of their name or associate in business ventures with any person or firm that they believe is engaged in fraudulent or dishonest enterprise.

Engineers shall not aid or abet the unlawful practice of engineering by a person or firm.

Engineers having knowledge of any alleged violation of this Code shall report thereon to appropriate professional bodies and, when relevant, also to public authorities, and cooperate with the proper authorities in furnishing such information or assistance as may be required.

These six points spell out some pretty direct actions that engineers should and should not engage in while trying to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.” I remember an instance while working in a manufacturing setting when an employee there wanted to operate a forklift unsafely in my area. He wanted his coworker to operate the forklift to elevate him while standing on the forks. Luckily, I convinced the coworker this was unsafe and a bad idea. I also notified management, our employer, of the situation to that appropriate steps could be taken to prevent a situation like this from happening again.

Engineers do not have to be licensed professional engineers to uphold the integrity of the engineering profession by maintaining a Code of Ethics. Engineers from all areas can and should “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” when engaged in the fulfillment of their professional duties.

If you are still unclear or uncertain about this first canon of the Code of Ethics or a certain situation, many professional engineering organizations have ethics committees, hotlines, and publish case studies.



  1. NSPE Code of Ethics
  2. The Seven Fundamental Canons of ASCE’s Code of Ethics
  3. ASME Society Policy: Ethics

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