BY NIGEL HISTON, P.ENG.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Histon's and
not necessarily those of the Association or Council.