Terri-Jane Yuzda

Sending Engineering Work for Canadian Projects Overseas
May Lead to Ethical Dilemmas and Threaten Public Protection


We are all familiar with the concern of "too little fee for too much work." Some of us can point to instances where too little fee has led to engineers short-cutting their work, not performing proper in-depth checks and assuming contractors will take responsibility - and then, ultimately, to a collapse or other disaster and the resulting nationwide attention.

On the other hand, who among us does not like a bargain? Who hasn't heard of "overpaid" engineers?
It is an old dilemma: fix the fees just right so that one can win the work, but have enough fee that work can be done properly. We attempt to charge only just enough that clients (and perhaps shareholders) are happy and feel value was gained at a fair price.

In our brave new world of instant communication there is now a new way out of this status quo. It is being pursued relentlessly by the largest engineering companies. It is fraught with potential for concern.

Concern for the public we serve (protected until now through the processes of registration for Canadian engineers), concern for our professions as engineers, and concern for our ability as a nation to survive independently and uniquely should we one day wake up and find that there is no more work for engineers in Canada.

From Alberta To New Delhi

The "new way out" is to simply shift the work to another country. The developing nations of China, India, the Philippines and Mexico, and the old Eastern Bloc countries such as Poland, all have large reserves of manpower. Much of it is well trained and knowledgeable, and all of it is willing and able to work for wages less than 1/10th those in Canada.

Office facilities are available that rival any found in North America, and they too are similarly cheaper than here. Setting up a computer network between, say, an office in Alberta and New Delhi is now an easy thing to accomplish. E-mail and telephone calls are cheap and effective.

Preliminary conceptual design using relatively few hours of work can be done in Alberta. Detailed design can then follow in whichever country the "virtual office" is located. The work is performed in this foreign country by engineers and designers there using and interpreting our codes, standards and specifications. It is sent back to Canada via the non-taxable medium of e-mail and computer information interchange.

The work comes back complete, lacking only one thing - the engineer's stamp or seal on the drawings to give the final approval needed for construction to begin. Companies actively pursuing work in this manner expect their Canadian engineers to "review" or "check" the work, then sign/seal it with their professional stamps.

The largest engineering companies already performing work in this manner have been able to open offices and staff them with people of the highest quality. They have been able to impose their systems and organization for work processes. They can get work done quickly, sometimes efficiently.

The Value of Local Experience
What they cannot give is the "local experience" that allows Canadian engineers to be confident of their designs. They cannot give an understanding of our summer and winter conditions and how they interact with our designed work. They cannot provide direct access to our code writers and universities so these overseas staff are most able to fully interpret code requirements in difficult situations, or even understand how and why our codes are written as they are.

And what about access to our societies and organizations, which would allow these engineers and designers to discuss problems and solutions with their peers?

There are many areas where the foreign engineer may make mistakes or bad decisions due to lack of Canadian experience and a feel for our environment. Worst of all, this engineer has no third party responsibility - only a responsibility to the company, which, in the heat of the moment, is normally to get work finished quickly.

Since there is no way for a Canadian legal authority to be involved, there is no way for our engineering organizations to control or impose our rules and ethics upon the foreign engineer.

Problems can arise back in Canada, too, when the work arrives.

It is almost certain that project managers, clients and contractors are all pushing for the work to be released just as quickly as possible. "Schedule" is now all important to the financial well-being of the project. The "stamping engineer" is under great pressure to "review the work."

In the minds of managers and senior officers of the larger engineering companies, a "review" to ensure "the work is safe" is all that's required. It should be the only obstacle to professional stamping of the drawings. It is my experience that some managers have even stated that "in-depth checking should not be necessary once a degree of confidence of the work from the foreign office has been achieved." What is entirely forgotten or ignored is that, upon placing his or her seal and signature upon a document, the engineer assumes all responsibility for the work.

Engineers Here Fully Responsible
The Canadian engineer is not just saying, "This looks reasonable and I think the work may be constructed." He or she is now fully responsible to the public (including the company and the client) for the complete integrity of that work.

In the event of a failure or collapse, or even just a complaint about the work, not only is the company liable but so is the engineer. The engineer's very livelihood is at stake, because professional registration might even be rescinded.

It is neither uncommon nor unethical for an engineer, under certain circumstances, to sign and seal work which was actually performed by others. Take the case of a senior engineer supervising work of junior engineers in training.

Most probably they will be in the same office. Certainly they will meet and discuss the work. A conscientious senior engineer will daily review what his or her juniors are doing. The work can probably truly be said to be accomplished "under the direct control and supervision" of the senior engineer.

However, the senior engineer takes full responsibility for the work upon sealing and signing it. The senior engineer would be professionally negligent if he or she had not ensured the work was fully checked.

Sometimes, single entities of work may be prepared "by others" (perhaps overseas). Engineers here who are required to sign and seal this work must be extremely diligent. There are dangers to this, since the Canadian engineer owes a responsibility to his client (the public) that not only is the work safe but it is also constructable and cost effective. It would seem to me that there should be a big question mark if the engineer finds the work safe but not economic or difficult to construct.

We, as registered Canadian engineers, are being pushed by some of the largest engineering companies to treat and view work done overseas in just the same way as if it were done in our own offices in our own country. But is the work "just the same"? Are the processes "no different to those used by the engineers around you"?

There are large time zone differences. Is a phone conversation at 9:30 at night, at home with no back up data, as good as a 15-minute meeting in the office? Almost certainly not. Is a phone conversation anything like as good as a direct meeting anyway?

Can the stamping engineer truly say of work completely prepared on another continent "it was prepared under my direct control and supervision"? I say emphatically the engineer cannot.

Can the Canadian engineer even be sure that in complicated situations involving multi-discipline work such as high pressure piping, structural engineering, mechanical, process and electrical engineering that full and proper integration of all work has been done? Do deflections of structure match and sympathize with those of pipe systems and vessels? Are system stiffnesses appropriately chosen?

Direct Involvement Impossible
To be certain, the engineer must be intimately involved in the complete design - which cannot happen with all the work being performed on another continent.

All that the engineer can do is check the work of his or her own discipline and this is just not enough. To do this alone is to be half an engineer.

If the engineer then stamps and signs the work, I for one must consider the engineer to have acted unethically. But that is the pressure employers exert upon today's engineer.

Some 70 to 80 per cent of the detailed structural, piping and electrical engineering for some of our largest petrochemical and oilsands plants is now being performed by engineers on other continents, who are not registered in Canada. Within a year to 18 months, the same percentage of mechanical, control systems and perhaps process engineering will follow suit.

Is this what we, as a profession, want? Does this allow us to perform our job in an ethical manner, properly designed and checked to be in the best interests of and protect the public? Our engineering associations were legislated into being to ensure that we, as registered engineers, perform our work properly.

Should engineers from other continents - who cannot be fully familiar with Canadian practices, our winters, our codes, our culture, our contracting abilities and preferences, our costs - be licensed by our professional organizations?

I suggest that in many cases it is simply not enough to simply pass a set of exams. Residence in Canada is necessary in order to experience our conditions and a length of time working in Canada is necessary to properly cement those experiences. Further, residency in Canada allows proper control through legal means of all engineers living and working here.

Those engineers who act unethically can effectively be brought to task by the associations. It would be extremely difficult to hear of and build a case against a foreign engineer.

Important Role
Engineering is an essential part of our Canadian sovereignty and is integral to the development of our infrastructure. As such, it must be controlled and properly administered by Canadian engineers. They must be properly able to supervise and administer work performed under them, and they must be able to demonstrate this to the satisfaction of third parties (the engineering associations).

Mass movement of engineering work for the Canadian oilsands from Canada to other continents is a direct threat to the above and should be resisted with all possible strength. If it is not, we will wake up one day (very shortly) and simply no longer be able to perform any of this work ourselves. It is not only us, of course, who will suffer. It is the Canadian public.

Nigel Histon, P.Eng., was born in the United Kingdom and educated at Leeds University. He worked in London for six years before moving to Calgary in 1975. Mr. Histon has spent most of his working life in the engineering, procurement and construction industry.

Editor's Note: The APEGGA Practice Review Board continues to investigate professional engineering practice in major projects. As Mr. Histon notes, professional engineers are responsible for any work they stamp and sign off on, regardless of where it originated.

The Guideline for Relying on Work Prepared by Others and the Practice Standard for Authenticating Professional Documents address these issues. Find them and the Code of Ethics online at www.apegga.org/publications/guidelines.html.

The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Histon's and not necessarily those of the Association or Council.

Home | Past PEGGs | PEGG Search | Contact Us