Engineers: The Creators and Controllers of Risk

Engineers use scientific knowledge to push the boundaries of the physical world. but how risky is it?

Engineering is a very dynamic industry, and the scope of what engineers do constantly changes. At the core, Merriam-Webster defines engineering as:

“The application of science and mathematics by which the properties of matter and the sources of energy in nature are made useful to people”

This is an incredibly broad description that encapsulates many activities. From building bridges to space stations, engineers design and build the visible (and more recently the non-visible) world around us. What this definition does not convey is that an engineer’s job is understanding and taking on risk.

With every new bridge, the engineer of record uses their theoretical knowledge to design the structure to an acceptable level of safety. In modern times, this level of risk is defined in technical and regional design codes and specifications. In the past, however, the acceptable level of safety was defined based on the experience of the engineers involved. This has created some engineering folk tales, including one where clients were forcing engineers to stand underneath their new bridges during load tests. This ensures that the engineer is literally held accountable for any short-comings in the design. I have heard this tale in many different countries around the world, and hope it was not true!

Load test on a new bridge. Photo Credit:

In modern society, a governing body licenses engineers by region. For each project, the engineer takes on the responsibility to protect the investment and safety of the public, client, and all stakeholders. As a result,

“each engineer must walk a tight line between being a designer and a lawyer.”

Each and every decision that an engineer makes can impact cost, schedule, and safety. It is therefore imperative that engineers understand the scope of risk that they are taking on, with relation to the project agreement.

The Project Agreement – The Holy Book of Risk. Photo Credit:

This is something that engineers, both junior and senior, can struggle with. In design-build contracts, for example, it is imperative that the scope of risk is understood by everyone, and maintained throughout the duration of the project. However, these lines can often get blurred when quick decisions are needed. It is at times like these that engineers must use caution in how they respond to each question, as small changes in wording can significantly impact the level of risk that engineers are exposing themselves, and their companies, to.

Since understanding this aspect of engineering can often govern the way we work and interact with clients and the public, it is imperative that this be taught to engineers in school, and early on in their careers.

This will not only help protect the public by maintaining accountability for risk, it will also protect our engineering firms from taking on unnecessary risk.

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