What is an Engineers’ Duty to Report?

Engineering licensure was established along with other professions which are regulated by states or boards in order to enhance the safety and welfare of the public by improving professional practice.  Professional engineers in the United States are bound by the licensure laws and regulations that are established by the states in which they practice and many are further responsible for abiding ethical rules established by professional boards to which they belong.  While these ethical rules vary by location and authorities, structural engineers should be aware of common established norms that exist within state laws as well as professional societies.

In the April 2024 SEU session, Matthew Rechtien, PE, Esq., from Walter P Moore, presented 2024 Engineering Update: Engineers’ Duty to Report.  Matt explained the origin of duty to report rules and common features within these rules.  He also identified conflicting and related rules and gave several examples of how to apply these rules in practice.

While state laws vary widely on what is required of engineers and their duty to the public, Matt noted the National Society for Professional Engineers, while obligatory only to NSPE members, offers a good starting point to establish what may be required of licensed engineers.  Many state professional boards tend to look to NSPE for guidance in establishing their by-laws.  The NSPE Code of Ethics states that “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.”  Matt noted that this statement implies this duty may most naturally fall on an engineer of record or someone with responsible charge on a project, someone who is in a position to be exercising judgment and whose judgment may be overruled.  The rule would not seem to apply to an engineer with no involvement on a project who may suspect danger.  The implication that the engineer’s judgment be overruled implies that the engineer has been involved on the project.  Thus, it seems an engineer may not have a duty to report a situation in which he/she has no involvement, under the NSPE Code of Ethics.  However, if the EOR does find that the safety and welfare of the public may be in jeopardy on a relevant project, then the engineer must notify the employer or client AND the authority which may be appropriate.  This duty seems to end once notification has been established with the two required parties.  These duties may vary depending on the actual ethics rules in play and of course the factual context.

As previously mentioned, each state may or may not have expressed rules that add further responsibilities on engineers to report unsafe conditions.  Matt noted states such as Michigan and Florida have distinct language spelling out the engineers’ duty, whereas other states such as New York or California may not expressly state the duty of engineers in this regard.  In any case, engineers should educate themselves on the laws and rules to which they are bound by their licensing jurisdictions.  Among regulated professions, structural engineers are especially, if not, uniquely positioned to improve the safety and welfare of the public and duty to report rules requiring engineers to report potentially dangerous situations are vital to improving the practice of licensed engineers and their services to society.

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