Signed, Sealed and…

Have you ever had that moment when you thought your head might actually explode from the sheer audacity of someone’s comment? I had that moment recently.

I received the following quotation by a Professional Engineer (PE) after a ballast system failure where the installer followed the contract drawings and engineer approved installer submittals:

“The design provided within [Engineers] plan set were schematic at best and rely on the qualified and experienced installer to provide an adequate, effective ballast system capable of a 1 year life as identified in the contract.”

Say What?? SCHEMATIC…… AT BEST??????? So, the best possible description that this engineer could give to his Colleague’s work is to call it a “Schematic”? Google Dictionary defines Schematic as “(a diagram or other representation) symbolic and simplified” or “(of thought, ideas, etc.) Simplistic or formulaic in character, usually to an extent inappropriate to the complexities of the subject matter.”

And what if we don’t go best case here, what is it then? A suggestion of what might work? I could give you a few ideas of how I might classify this if we are talking “worse case” scenarios. I also know a few engineers who might become apoplectic if their work was described this way. I would not blame them for a minute. Can you imagine an engineering saying their firm’s work “is just a simple suggestion of what the installer might want to think about doing, but we don’t want to pressure them. They should decide what they actually want to do.” I know a lot of installers who wish this was the case.

Since when is a 17-page set of “Contract Drawings” “Issued for Bid” merely schematic? The words “schematic at best” do not occur on any page of the drawing set; however, each of the 17-page set includes the titles “Plan” or “Detail” and each is sealed, signed and dated by a professional engineer in this PE’s department.

At first glance, one would likely think that perhaps a junior engineer made the quote out of ignorance or inexperience but that is not the case. The PE making the quote is not only a division head of a large engineering firm but also sits on the governing board for at least one state’s Solid Waste Management Association! While it might seem like I am just ranting about some engineer’s poor choices, this is actually a very serious issue and unfortunately not an isolated incident.

I have set some personal rules for my blog, one of which is to never use it for personal purposes or ranting about someone or something that has agitated me. However, when I see trends in the industry that keep repeating themselves, I must speak up. Across the country I have seen too many cases of engineers making serious errors and then laying the blame at the feet of the contractors and/or installers. They fail to take responsibility for their own workmanship and no one holds them accountable.

There are many amazing engineers that I have been privileged to work with over the years and that I am proud to work alongside of on projects. However, behaviors like this are a black eye to the entire engineering profession. I take that personally. My father and Grandfather were both engineers. I have worked in this industry for nearly 3 decades. This is my industry and we are better than belittling the hard work of engineers down to simplified schematics at best.

There are many lines that have been crossed by the above quotation, including some of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Code of Ethics which sets the standard for not only how it’s members should professionally conduct themselves but also serves as a guideline to non-members as well. The ASCE Code of Ethics can be found here.

Of even greater importance is what the act of affixing the P.E. seal means. The following is from the ASCE website page titled The Proper Use of the PE Seal, found here. “More than just a simple ritual or formality, affixing the P.E. seal is perhaps the most important statement that can be made by a practicing engineer. When used on a set of engineering plans or documents, the P.E. seal serves as a signal to clients, regulators, and the public at large that the documents meet the exacting standards of a professional who not only is qualified by education and experience to evaluate the contents but also is ethically bound to safeguard the health, safety, and welfare of the public.

Inherent in the message carried by a P.E. seal is the element of personal knowledge. With so much trust placed in an engineer’s assessment of professional documents, it is essential to know that the engineer is certifying the documents not on the basis of blind trust or an unsubstantiated belief in another’s work but because he or she has had sufficient personal involvement with the documents to know whether or not they meet the standards of the profession. Accordingly, the requirement of personal involvement looms large both in state licensing laws governing the use of an engineer’s seal and in the codes of conduct enforced by ASCE and other professional societies”.

Not only is the quoted engineer placing a blind trust in the installers work, the engineer is really saying they do not have the expertise to properly design all or portions of the project! Yet, these plans carry a signed and dated PE seal.

Additionally, many states require a person practicing engineering to have a license or registration for such activities which makes it clear who can and who cannot practice engineering. Suggesting that the installer can take liberties to change any portion of a sealed plan set during construction is absurd! The installer/contractor can make suggestions but those suggestions should not be acted upon until approved by the appropriate project engineer. Likewise, the project engineer can make changes during the project if they feel the integrity of the project is in jeopardy (this will likely result in a change order from installer/contractor) but the installer/contractor never has liberties to deviate from project guidance documents on their own.

So, how do we move forward and mitigate the risk of having blurred lines of responsibility from an engineering standpoint? I am of the strong opinion that something needs to be done or else this industry is going to suffer some major setbacks that could very well lead to loss of life and/or property. The purpose of properly designing containment systems is to ensure they contain the nasty stuff that can be harmful to people and the environment – engineers who are placing this trust in the hands of others are rolling the dice with people’s lives – the very thing they are supposed to be protecting.

While I know that the ASCE and most state licensing boards take this issue very seriously – both will usually have a complaint form that can be filed – we need to dialogue about this further within our industry and find a better pathway forward.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Aaron says:

    “Schematic at best” takes on a plethora of phrases I have witnessed encroaching into contract language of several areas of the civil and construction industry. It is a futile attempt by the Engineer to mimic the Lawyer and use ‘scary’ language in an attempt to affect the perceived attitude of the Contractor. This wording would not hold up in a court of law. Inexperienced Lawyers are just as guilty of attempting to ‘scare’ Contractors/Bidders using the same method and if it was a Public Works project, this phrase may have been inserted by the legal review (or put there by the Engineer and overlooked by the Lawyer). One can only guess. It is, however, a potentially large and ever-intrusive form of ineptitude spreading like a fungus (at least in California where I reside).