Ethics in engineering; an essential part of training

Earlier this year, my colleague Ondrej Vesely and I were invited to share our fire engineering knowledge with students at Edinburgh University’s School of Engineering — in particular on the hot topic of ethics in engineering.

Ethics should be an important part of any fire engineering education. Here in the UK ethics is considered a critical aspect associated with achieving chartership from the UK Engineering Council (UKEC), and it is essential that professionals within our industry act ethically to uphold the standards that the Council mandates.

Over several years, OFR has established links with the University of Edinburgh. This has been as a result of research collaboration and welcoming graduates from the University to OFR as new members of staff. The University’s industry engagement manager, Dr Katherine Cameron, kindly invited us to talk to students about what they would do in certain situations where some might consider the ethics to be unclear or challenging.

Ondrej and myself presented for an hour on how ethics pertain generally to engineering and also the issues in fire safety engineering specifically. As part of the presentation, a  number of interesting and ambiguous dilemmas that may be asked by clients, architects or design teams were posed to the 50 students who attended. There was a lively and interactive discussion. Hypothetical situations included things like:

  1. In England, there is a ban on combustible insulation and cladding in residential buildings over 18 m. What are the ethics of purposefully designing buildings to be under 18 m (i.e. 17.5 m or similar) to avoid the ban. And if you consider this unethical; at what height do you become ethical again?
  2. The ethics of being asked by clients to value-engineer critical life safety systems out of the building owing to costs; and when it would / wouldn’t be appropriate to carry out such exercises.

It was great to see so many new members of the industry engage with the issues surrounding ethics in engineering. As this topic ultimately forms part of the accreditation process of the degree and meets certain criteria set by the UK Engineering Council in order to show compliance, it’s great to have these sorts of conversations before students become part of the workforce.


Stephen Dickson

Principal Fire Engineer

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