industrial engineering ethics case studies

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  • Engineering Ethics

The following series of engineering ethics cases were created by interviewing numerous engineers from Silicon Valley and beyond.

The cases have been written, anonymized, and honed to highlight the ethical content from each interview. While these cases are meant for engineering students and professionals for their professional development, nearly all of the cases occur in the context of business, and therefore are also relevant for those seeking business ethics cases.

These cases are suitable as homework and/or for classroom discussion. The goal of this project is to acquaint engineering students and professionals with the variety of ethical experiences of engineering as practiced “in the field.” By becoming familiar with problems faced by other engineers we hope to thereby prepare those reading these cases if they too encounter difficult ethical dilemmas in their work.

Cases range from the mundane to the deadly. While we do not reveal how each particular case turned out, in general they turned out well – the people involved made the right decisions. But this is not to say that all of these right decisions came without personal cost. A few of the engineers did face negative repercussions and a very few even needed to find new employment. However, overall the interviewees were satisfied with how events turned out, even if they faced negative repercussions for their good decisions. They understood that doing the right thing is good in itself, regardless of the personal consequences they may have faced.

The engineering ethics cases can be sorted into the following categories:

  • Academic Ethics
  • Bioengineering
  • Business Ethics
  • Civil Engineering
  • Computer/Software Engineering
  • Electrical Engineering
  • International
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Science/Research Ethics

A quality assurance engineer must decide whether or not to ship products that might be defective.

An intern at a power electronics startup faces unkind comments from a fellow engineer. She suspects that her colleague is prejudice toward female engineers.

A chemical engineering professor discovers that a colleague has taken credit for his research.

A bioengineering researcher discovers an error in protocol and feels pressured not to report it to her supervisor.

A graduate student suspects her research adviser has earned tenure under false pretenses.

A computer startup company risks violating copyright laws if it reuses a code that is the intellectual property of another company.

A recently promoted manager at an industrial engineering company discovers that factory workers are asked to work more than eight hours a day without getting paid overtime.

Full transparency might prevent a project leader from closing a deal with a valuable client. Should he still clarify the situation to his client?

A manager at a consumer electronics company struggles over whether or not he should disclose confidential information to a valued customer.

A medical researcher is asked to trim data before presenting it to the scientific advisory board.

A technical sales engineer feels pressure to falsify a sales report in order to prevent the delay of her company's IPO.

When a computer filled with personal data gets stolen, a data company must decide how to manage the breach in security.

Employees of a computer hardware company are angered by a manager that demonstrates favoritism.

A project engineer believes his company is providing the wrong form of technology to an in-need community in East Africa.

A computer engineer is asked to divulge private medical data for marketing purposes.

Environmental engineers face pressure to come up with data that favors their employers.

In this ethics case, a woman is displeased with her work role at a computer hardware company.

A systems engineering company employee quits after getting pressured to falsify product testing paperwork.

A manager at a nonprofit mechanical engineering firm questions how responsible her company should be for ongoing maintenance on past projects.

An engineer for an environmental consulting firm must decide whether or not he should encourage his client to go with a more environmentally sustainable construction plan.

A genetic engineer feels a responsibility to educate colleagues on the truth behind stem cell research.

An engineering manager gets pressured to bribe a foreign official in order to secure a business venture in East Africa.

An African-American electronics design lead wonders whether his colleague's contentious behavior is motivated by racism.

A medical company asks blood sample suppliers to sign an ethically questionable consent form.

A quality assurance tester gets pressured to falsify data about a new product from a major cell phone company.

Should a production engineer prioritize a customer's desires over safety?

A female intern at a construction company faces disrespectful treatment because of her gender.

A new hire at an electronics startup struggles to decide between telling the truth and maximizing the company's profit.

A fellow for a global services program faces an ethical dilemma when a colleague asks him to falsify receipts.

A researcher of regenerative medicine meets a man who is eager sign up for potentially dangerous human testing.

A bioengineer's research leads to the discovery that a patient might have prostate cancer.

Two support engineers at a South Bay audio visual electronics startup question the fairness of a supervisor's decision.

An employee overseeing data analysis on a clinical drug trial has concerns about the safety of a client's drug.

The engineering ethics cases in this series were written by Santa Clara University School of Engineering students Clare Bartlett, Nabilah Deen, and Jocelyn Tan, who worked as Hackworth Engineering Ethics Fellows at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics over the course of the 2014-2015 academic year. In order to write these cases, the fellows interviewed numerous engineers and collected nearly 40 engineering ethics cases from Silicon Valley and beyond.  The Hackworth Fellowships are made possible by a generous gift from Joan and the late Michael Hackworth.

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NSF Workshop Cases - Numerical Problems with Ethical Issues

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Industrial engineering students explore ethical issues through experiential learning case study

In 2015, Volkswagen admitted to equipping software into 11 million of its vehicles worldwide, allowing the cars to emit up to 40 times more nitrogen oxide than their emissions test indicated and well above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limits. This case was used as a backdrop for third-year industrial engineering students in the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science (FEAS) to explore ethical dilemmas and apply professionalism in their field by investigating engineers’ responsibilities and duties. 

To enhance students’ knowledge of best engineering practices, Jamy Li , a researcher and professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and Fenella Amarasinghe, Senior Manager, Education Planning and Development at FEAS, collaborated to create an assignment that allowed students to consider the ethical issues of the Volkswagen case and were tasked with presenting their findings.

“The teaching team of Fenella, the graduate assistants and I wanted to incorporate different case studies to improve the curriculum to achieve its objective of enhancing the real-world knowledge of students,” described Li.

By considering the relevance of learning from past failures and understanding what it means for future work, “it’s a way for students to think about the complexities inherent in engineering practices,” said Amarasinghe. “It is tempting to seek a clear-cut right and wrong answer, but there are indeed shades of gray and competing priorities that can impact how decisions are made.” 

The assignment provided students with the experience to navigate ethical issues within their industry and prepare them to approach these dilemmas in their professional lives. Touching on key All-in Approach (AIA) hubs such as experiential learning and leadership, students had the opportunity to examine the case study critically and investigate solutions that would effectively serve the people their work impacts.

Third-year industrial engineering student, Pat Vellalaghan, explained that the unique assignment helped to highlight engineers’ role in society. “When you’re studying engineering, you’re expecting just to study math or science,” said Vellalaghan. “But to do an ethics assignment such as this one provides a very different perspective.”

Reflecting on the assignment, Vellalaghan said his biggest takeaway was considering his duties as an engineer. “I believe that after doing this assignment, we have a responsibility not just to the company we work for, but rather, the people that our work affects,” said Vellalaghan. 

“In terms of this scandal, Volkswagen was trying to cut the bottom line and cheat,” said Vellalaghan. “However, their engineers should have realized that the environmental impacts the car has is a universal problem that will affect everyone, not just the people that buy their cars.”

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to realize that as engineers, whatever we do has an impact on society, and it’s our responsibility to uphold and honour that,” said Vellalaghan.

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5 Disastrous Engineering Failures Due to Ethics

boat going down a flooded street

Engineering failures due to ethics are not new. From the Johnstown Flood in 1889 to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, engineering failures have been caused by problems in design, construction and safety protocol.

The blame can often be laid at ignorance, miscommunications and, in some extreme cases, indifference or negligence. After many of these engineering disasters however, professionals and leaders have learned from the wrong decisions that were made. Here, we discuss some of the worst engineering disasters and what caused them.

Not all engineering mistakes are associated with large-scale feats or impressive architectural marvels. From 1971 through 1976, the Ford Motor Company produced and sold more than 2.2 million Ford Pintos. The automaker set out to make a competitive, affordable car, but late into the development of its design, engineers discovered an issue with the fuel tank. Located between the rear axle and the bumper, the tank punctured and ruptured easily due to the car’s design. Ford’s engineers recommended an easy fix to the problem, one that would cost an additional $11 for each vehicle. In spite of this, the company decided to continue with the design as is, both to keep the cost low and to not delay production.

After just a few years on the road, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating accidents involving the small car catching fire, but it took an article from the magazine Mother Jones to bring to light the Pinto’s danger to the public as well as Ford’s previous knowledge of it. After losing a lawsuit, Ford recalled the Pinto in 1978 and fixed vehicles with the original suggested solution. Some estimate that between 27 and 180 people died from the fuel tank issue. 1

The saga of the Love Canal is one of the first major environmental disasters in the U.S. The project originally began in 1894 when an entrepreneur attempted to build a canal in Niagara Falls, New York, to bring water and hydroelectric power to the city. The project was never completed, but in 1947, the canal was sold to Hooker Chemicals and Plastic Corporation. The company lined the unfinished canal with clay and began dumping chemicals and waste into the then isolated site. In 1953, the site was sold again, but this time to build an elementary school and houses.

Controversy remains over whether Hooker or the Niagara Falls Board of Education, which chose the site in spite of strict restrictions detailed in the land deed, is responsible for the consequences from building on the site. During the construction of the school, homes and a sewer line were built on and through the canal. The clay lining broke and chemicals began seeping into the ground. Eventually a state of emergency was declared by New York. Residents reported miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and other disorders and continued to fight to keep the site vacant years after they were evacuated. Today, the ramifications of this environmental and engineering failure still impacts building and policy today. 2

The Hyatt Regency Hotel Walkway

One year after the Hyatt Regency Hotel was completed in Kansas City, Missouri, two walkways suspended over the atrium lobby collapsed in July 1981. It happened in the middle of a dance, with attendees packed on the walkways and the floor below. More than 200 were injured, and 114 people were killed.

A series of decisions and miscommunications were found to be at fault. The original designs for the walkways violated the city’s weight-bearing codes: The second and fourth story walkways were suspended by slim sets of rods anchored to the ceiling. However, following a discussion with the fabricator during construction, the decision was made to attach the set of rods supporting the second-floor walkway to the bottom of the fourth—instead of the ceiling. That meant the rods attached to the fourth-floor walkway were supporting twice the weight than the original design intended. A lack of proper communication was blamed for the design change not being analyzed and approved properly, but the engineers involved with the site and the fabricators refused to accept responsibility. 3

New Orleans’ Levee System

The American Society of Civil Engineers notes that the destruction of the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina is unique among engineering failures. No one single decision led to the disaster, but rather systemic failures were the cause.

During construction, the Army Corps of Engineers failed to follow their own guidelines when estimating the strength of the soil—and designed the system to withstand low hurricane wind speeds. The height of the levees was another of many engineering mistakes: In addition to using flawed data about land elevation, the Corps also did not take into account the land’s natural, gradual sinking. In addition, local, state and federal politics and mismanagement played a role in both the quality and speediness of the construction and in failing to fund and maintain the system.

Across the Gulf Coast, more than 1,800 died and more than $100 billion in damage was caused. New Orleans was one of the hardest hit regions from Hurricane Katrina. Roughly 80 percent of the city and its surrounding area were flooded. 4

The Titanic

More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic struck an iceberg in 1912. Over the years, many have researched and investigated the details of its sinking, and it has been determined that a number of design issues and poor decisions led to its sinking in just over two and-a-half hours.

As one of the biggest ocean liners of its day, the Titanic featured 16 watertight compartments. If four of those flooded, the ship would still be able to stay afloat. Six compartments flooded though because the bulkheads were not tall enough to hold the water. 5 Some potential causes behind the ship’s sinking include designs that failed to take into account its size and mobility, the speed the ship was traveling, ignored warnings about the likelihood of icebergs and other factors. 6

One flaw that is undisputed though: There were not enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The 20 lifeboats would only have had space for roughly 1,200 people, while more than 2,200 passengers and crew were on board the ship. Additional lifeboats had been removed from the design because the ship owners were worried that it made the ship look unsafe and seemed packed on the deck.

Importance of Leadership

Decisions that impact the integrity of a design or its construction usually come from the top down. Lapses in leadership can lead to these kinds of engineering failures due to ethics. That’s why it’s essential to have leaders trained in both ethical decision-making and technical decision-making.

At the Case School of Engineering, our online graduate programs focus on developing the skills in leadership and ethics that highly skilled engineers need to be successful. Joining our program means joining a network of experienced engineering leaders from a number of different industries. Learn more about who our students are .

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  • Engineering Ethics Toolkit

Engineering Ethics Toolkit: Case studies

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Welcome to the case studies pages of the EPC’s Engineering Ethics toolkit, produced in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering. Click here for the toolkit homepage.

Case studies are one tool that can be used to address the context and impact of engineering ethics, and have been proven to be an effective teaching and learning method.

These case studies cover a variety of engineering disciplines, professional situations, and personal dilemmas and focuses on several areas of moral pedagogy. They were developed for use in higher education, but may also be of use in other settings.

To accommodate many educational levels, the case studies are divided between Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced cases. They are written in parts so that educators have the flexibility to use them as is best suited to their teaching content and environment, and all cases permit and encourage the integration of technical content. Along with learning and teaching notes, the cases contain suggested questions and activities as well as supplementary materials.

They are aligned to the Engineering Council and Royal Academy of Engineering’s Joint Statement of Ethical Principles and the expectations of the 4th Edition of the Engineering Council’s Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes and are therefore appropriate for UK teaching and learning contexts. They are, however, easily adapted for use in other countries.

Guidance articles are also available to help situate the case studies in an educational context and to signpost to additional research and resources on engineering ethics.

In developing the cases and articles in this resource, the authors and advisory group took into account recent scholarship on best practices in teaching engineering ethics through case studies. They also reviewed existing case study libraries in order to add to the growing body of material available on engineering ethics. 

Case studies

Most case studies are also available as PDF documents on the RAEng website.

To ensure that everyone can use and adapt these cases in a way that best fits their teaching or purpose, this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License .  Under this licence, you are free to share and adapt this material, under terms that you must give appropriate credit and attribution to the original material and indicate if any changes are made.

Get involved:  These case studies were created as part of the EPC’s Engineering Ethics toolkit that is intended to evolve and grow over time. Further case studies are being developed and will be added in due course, along with additional teaching resources to support individual case studies. We are actively inviting experts to submit case studies for review and possible inclusion in this toolkit. For more information, see our Get involved  page.


Engineering Ethics: Cases

  • Environmental Ethics
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Cases Available Online

  • Cases on Engineering Practice Cases from the Online Ethics Center for Science and Engineering
  • National Society of Professional Engineers Search the archive of case studies brought before the NSPE's Board of Ethical Review. Cases run from 1959 to 2006.
  • Engineering Ethics Cases from Texas A & M University Though the design of this website is a bit dated, this is an extremely good collection of famous case studies maintained by Texas A&M University's Murdoch Center for Engineering.
  • Ethics Cases A collection of eighteen famous case studies which include a time line of events, a detailed examination of the incident, and oftentimes a bibliography for further investigation.
  • Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases Cases from the first edition of the book, "Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases by Charles Harris. Listed by name, engineering specialty, and a taxonomy of cases by subject dealt with.
  • Engineering Disasters and Learning from Failure A collection of cases on famous engineering failures maintained by the Materials Science and Engineering Department at the University of New York, Stony Brook.
  • Ethics Education Library - Engineering Cases A collection of over 500 cases on various aspects engineering ethics. Searchable by topic and keyword.

Books Containing Cases

industrial engineering ethics case studies

  • Engineering Ethics: Concepts, Viewpoints, Cases and Codes by Jimmy Smith, Patricia Harper, and Richard Burgess Call Number: CSEP.TA157.E54x2008 Along with a number of seminal readings on engineering ethics, this book includes a large collection of codes of ethics and case studies.

industrial engineering ethics case studies

Engineering Ethics Films

  • Incident at Morales Call Number: DVD.CSEP.TA157.I53x2003 Incident at Morales involves a variety of ethical issues faced by a company that wants to quickly build a plant in order to develop a new chemical product to gain a competitive edge over the competition
  • Gilbane Gold by National Institute for Engineering Ethics Call Number: Available at the Ethics Center Library Publication Date: Available at the CSEP Library, this video is the fictional story of a chemical company The city of Gilbane has implemented a plan where the sewage of the city is processed and sold as fertilizer to local farmers, a product locally known as Gilbane Gold. The fertilizer project creates a sizable revenue for the city, who has also sought to make itself attractive to business through numerous tax incentives. Not long ago, the city has put in place stringent regulations on the amount of heavy metals manufacturing plants located in Gilbane discharge into the city's sewage. Z Corp, a company in Gilbane, has been releasing a higher level of heavy metals into the city's sewage than allowed. As a new employee, should the engineer David Jackson tell the city about this fact? Below URL is a link to a summary of the film, and discussion questions. The link goes to a teaching guide that describes the film in more detail.

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Case Studies for Engineering Ethics Across the Product Life Cycle

This activity is considered an NAE Exemplar in Engineering Ethics Education and was included in a 2016 report with other exemplary activities. This activity uses reviewed case studies and life cycle assessment tools to help students develop needed ethical decision-making skills. 

Exemplary features: Adaptability for use in secondary education; extensive collection of cases on the ethics of lifecycle impacts and sustainability

Why it’s exemplary: Real-world engineering decision making involves multiple actors and, for each, ethical considerations may arise at multiple levels—personal, professional, societal, or global. Our program of case studies and educational materials is exemplary in its interdisciplinary foundation, created collectively by engineers, policy experts, business professionals, and ethicists to provide clear examples for rising engineers to appreciate ethical issues from multiple angles. Accompanying materials are rigorously assessed in the classroom by internal and external evaluators based on national educational goals and guidelines, with versions developed to suit a variety of instructional modes. Full cases are designed for university engineering students, while streamlined versions for secondary schools spread an awareness of lifecycle issues and environmental ethics early in formal education. Widespread dissemination using various media adds to national infrastructure for ethics education in engineering and environmental fields, with the goal of emphasizing societal ethics and indirect effects.

Program description: A central goal of engineering education is to provide students with an understanding of context for their designs and decisions. A common theme currently relates to the environment and public health, specifically what constitutes a fair distribution of emissions or impacts, who or what has value, and what exactly gets counted in an engineering analysis of benefits and costs. These questions can be quite effectively discussed in the context of lifecycle engineering, a design strategy that uses a “cradle-to-grave” approach to evaluate environmental and social impacts, incorporating material, energy, and economic flows as well as social and biological effects at different stages. While the use of lifecycle engineering and lifecycle assessment (LCA) tools is widespread, the modeling structure and interpretation of results involve ethical and value judgments that must be navigated carefully by the analyst and by the receiver of the results.

LCA is increasingly important in corporate and government decision making, yet there is a dearth of materials specifically designed to integrate ethics education into life cycle–oriented coursework. Our ethics education project centers on the integration of life cycle–oriented case studies in design, engineering, management, and public policy fields. Case studies are effective pedagogical tools, and particularly useful in enabling students to develop practical understanding of the ethical challenges they will face as practicing professionals by placing them in mock decision-making roles. We have conducted a thorough review of nearly 1,000 existing case studies from engineering, business, and public policy to determine common topics and themes that relate to product life cycles and environmental and health impacts. Our case studies cover current events and engineering design decisions that involve balancing local or direct effects with larger, indirect effects on society, including (a) mismanagement of industrial waste and ecological impacts from industrial accidents, specifically the inundation of several villages in Hungary from a large-volume spill of red mud, a byproduct of aluminum production (production stage); (b) the upstream implication of material selection for consumer electronics, specifically the tradeoffs between Au-coated antennas and GaIn liquid metal reconfigurable antennas, a new technology being piloted by handset manufacturers (design stage); (c) implementation of state-level policy around compact fluorescent bulbs, balancing state targets for energy efficiency, indirect emissions as a result of reducing electricity demand, and direct potential emissions of Hg during lamp breakage, both accidental and intentional (use and disposal stages); and (d) whether federal/state agencies could and should require labelling of nanomaterials in consumer products, drawing parallels with labelling efforts for pharmaceuticals and food (use and disposal stages).

Following typical case study methods, students are presented with an engineering or design decision that they need to make, accompanied by background material that provides technical, environmental, and policy context. An accompanying teaching note guides instructors with ideas for classroom instruction, emphasizing the ethical concepts that are relevant to the case and written with proper terminology in collaboration with the Ethics Institute at Northeastern and assessed by an external evaluator. Instructional materials and video footage presenting each case, as well as shorter versions for younger audiences, are being created and will be hosted at the Ethics Institute as an additional teaching resource. The creation of the case studies involved a multidisciplinary collaboration among faculty members as well as graduate students. Undergraduate students and high school teachers are assisting in the creation of versions appropriate for secondary schools. These cases have been designed as one-week modules to be incorporated in existing courses and ethics workshops.

The educational goals of this project are to:

(1) Create engaging, practical, and effective case study and workshop materials that examine ethical dimensions of LCA practice and communication, for use in courses in engineering, management, and social science;

(2) Evaluate the effectiveness of these materials through robust educational assessment while improving student learning; and

(3) Engage other secondary school and college/university instructors through demonstration and provision of instructional guides and resources to accompany the case study and workshop materials.

The overall purpose of the project is to enable engineering students and the general public to have an understanding and meaningful discussions of indirect impacts of their activities, and how to balance direct benefits and indirect impacts. Our life cycle–oriented, case-based approach to engineering ethics education will fill gaps in case study resources by addressing fundamental ethical principles and macro-ethical issues on sustainability topics, developing novel, robustly assessed educational materials where few currently exist.

Assessment information: Our case studies and workshops are being piloted in engineering, business, and public policy classrooms. We have also been working with the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning through Research at Northeastern and our external assessment advisor, Dr. Michael Loui, to develop assessment instruments and evaluation schemes that can be used across all of the cases. We now have a scheme that covers the common ethical concepts introduced in the cases—distributive justice, weighting/balancing risks, moral status, the precautionary principle, responsibility to report, and exploitation. The evaluation scheme is based on the framework presented by the Ethical Reasoning Value rubric published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and will be applied to five separate classes of students over the coming year in order to test learning outcomes. This project grew out of the team’s experience with trying to fit existing engineering ethics cases into a life cycle–based framework. To provide a baseline for evaluating the new case studies, a review of learning assessments was carried out in spring 2015 for a mechanical/industrial engineering course, which currently uses a case study–based ethics module about the Bhopal chemical disaster, and retrospectively for the 150+ students who have passed through the course over the past several years. Review of assignments and responses informed the creation of case study teaching notes and the draft evaluation scheme. Continuing assessment will allow the project team to adjust the cases and teaching materials as necessary and add further instructional guidance where learning objectives are not being met.

Additional resources:

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