This is the August 2019 edition of PDHengineer’s monthly series of Ethics case studies titled What Do You Think? This series is comprised of case studies from NSPE archives, involving both real and hypothetical matters submitted by engineers, public officials and members of the public.

Your peers and the NSPE Board of Ethical Review have reviewed the facts of the case as shown below. And, here are the results.

A Review of the Facts

Engineer Frank’s firm is retained by a fuel company to perform site investigations in connection with certain requirements under state and federal environmental regulations. Under the procedures established by Frank’s firm, the site visits will be conducted by engineering technicians under direct supervision of Frank who will perform all observations, sampling, and preliminary report preparation. Engineering technicians will also take photographs of the sites. No professional engineers will be present during the site visits. Following site visits, all pertinent information and material will be presented to Frank who is competent in this field. Following a careful review, Frank will certify that the evaluations were conducted in accordance with engineering principles.

Is it ethical for Frank to certify that the evaluations were conducted in accordance with engineering principles?

Here is the result of our survey of your peers:

66% ethical and 34% not ethical

Applicable NSPE Code References:
Code II.2: Engineers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.
Code II.2b: Engineers shall not affix their signatures to any plans or documents dealing with subject matter in which they lack competence, nor to any plan or document not prepared under their direction and control.
Code II.2c: Engineers may accept assignments and assume responsibility for coordination of an entire project and sign and seal the engineering documents for the entire project, provided that each technical segment is signed and sealed only by the qualified engineers who prepared the segment.


The BER refers to two (2) previous cases in coming to a conclusion regarding this case. In BER Case 86-2 an engineer was the chief engineer within a large engineering firm, and affixed his seal to some of the plans prepared by registered engineers working under his general direction who did not affix their seals to the plans. At times, the engineer also sealed plans prepared by non-registered graduate engineers working under his general supervision.

Because of the size of the organization and the large number of projects being designated at any one time, the engineer found it impossible to give a detailed review or check of the design. He believed he was ethically and legally correct in not doing so because of his confidence in the ability of those he had hired and who are working under his general direction and supervision.

By general direction and supervision, the engineer meant that he was involved in helping to establish the concept, the design requirements, and review elements of the design or project status as the design progressed. The engineer was consulted about technical questions and he provided answers and direction in these matters.

At the time that BER Case 86-2 was reviewed, the Board concluded that the terms “direction” and “control” have a meaning which, when combined, would suggest that an engineer would be required to perform all tasks related to the preparation of the drawings, plans, and specifications in order for the engineer to ethically affix his seal.

Later, in BER Case 90-6, the Board considered two separate fact situations involving the signing and sealing of documents by an engineer prepared using a CADD system. In considering the facts the Board noted that the rendering of the Board’s decision in BER Case 86-2 raised a considerable degree of discussion within the engineering community because to many it appeared to be inconsistent with customary and general prevailing practices within the engineering profession and would therefore place a significant number of practitioners in conflict with the provisions of the Code. The Board noted at the time that the Code of Ethics is not a static document and must reflect and be in consonance with general prevailing practices within the engineering profession.

The Board determined that the conclusion in BER Case 86-2 should be modified to reflect actual practices which exist within engineering and not impose an impossible standard upon practice.

Under the facts in this case, we believe it was appropriate for Frank to certify that the environmental certifications were performed in accordance with engineering principles. Customary engineering practice includes the use of engineering technicians, technologists, graduate engineers and others to prepare preliminary reports, studies, evaluations, etc. Such practices are intended to utilize the talents of those individuals with the most pertinent education, training and experience appropriate for the task at hand and represent basic standards of engineering principles and practice.

We are of the view that so long as the professional engineer exercising direction and control performs a careful and detailed review of the material submitted by the engineer’s staff, there has been full compliance with Code II.2.c.

The Ethical Review Board’s Conclusion

It is ethical

It was ethical for Frank to certify that the evaluations were conducted in accordance with engineering principles.

John F. X. Browne, P.E.; William A. Cox, Jr., P.E.; Herbert G. Koogle, P.E.-L.S.; William W. Middleton, P.E.; William F. Rauch, Jr., P.E.; Otto A. Tennant, P.E.; Robert L. Nichols, P.E., Chairman

*Note-This opinion is based on data submitted to the Board of Ethical Review and does not necessarily represent all of the pertinent facts when applied to a specific case. This opinion is for educational purposes only and it should not be construed as expressing any opinion on the ethics of specific individuals. This opinion may be reprinted without further permission, provided that this statement is included before or after the text of the case.