In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on Engineering Ethics
March 3, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 1

Beyond Protecting the Public from Risk

Friday, March 3, 2017

Author: Robert B. Gilbert

A common perception is that engineers’ responsibility is to protect the public from risk. This perception is reinforced in engineering design guidelines and standards that focus on minimizing the chance of failure for engineering systems. However, the reality of what the public is willing to accept indicates that it is not necessarily averse to risk.

What if the public is not averse to risk? It would mean that upholding the first canon in the engineering code of ethics, “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of public,” is not necessarily best achieved by minimizing the chance of failure. Maybe the optimal solution is to expend more resources to enhance welfare by taking on additional risk. The key is that the engineering profession does not and cannot know the best interest of the public’s welfare without substantively and continuously interacting with the public it serves.

This article first presents evidence that the public is not necessarily averse to risk. It then suggests practical means for the engineering profession to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public beyond minimizing the chance of failure for engineering systems. Last is a discussion of the important role of engineering education in helping engineers work with the public to manage risk. Managing risks from floods is used throughout to illustrate the points.

Is the Public Averse to Risk?

On the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans District Commander for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Col. Richard Hansen, said the following (US Army 2015; emphasis added): “The nation made a commitment after Katrina to  the city and areas affected by the hurricane” and the engineers “made a promise to themselves and to the agency that [Katrina] wasn’t going to happen again.” The result is the Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. At about the same time, a few years after Superstorm Sandy, New York City announced that it “will spend $100 million to build a new flood protection system to shield lower Manhattan from major storms” (Durkin 2015; emphasis added).

This intent to protect the public from risk is manifested in engineering policy and design guidelines. The US government has established guidance for the level of risk associated with flooding from major dams that is considered “unacceptable” (figure 1). In the spirit of the intent to reduce risk, these thresholds are comparable to the risks to the public from meteorites (USNRC 1975; Whipple 1984).

   Figure 1

It is possible, however, that a public aversion to risk is more perception than reality. Recent assessments of flooding risks for a variety of levee systems in the United States indicate that the risk levels actually achieved are between ten and more than a thousand times greater than the guidelines for flooding from major dams (figure 1).

Furthermore, the public is not willing to spend an unlimited amount to reduce risks.1 In New Orleans, the $17 billion spent to upgrade the system of flood levees, walls, and gates after Hurricane Katrina corresponds to about $100,000 invested per expected life saved over its 100-year design life. For context, US guidelines for environmental regulations consider a threshold cost of about $10,000,000 per expected life saved (Borenstein 2008).

There is no absolute threshold for what the public wants or will accept or reject concerning risk because there are benefits and costs at play. There are benefits to living in New Orleans, the fourth largest port in the world; the California Delta, the state’s primary supply of water; and Washington’s Green River Valley, a major hub of commerce and trade. Thus people do not always appear to be logical in making decisions in the face of uncertainty, and they do not consistently choose to minimize or even reduce risk (e.g., Smutniak 2004).

For these reasons, upholding the first canon in the engineering code of ethics, to “hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare” of the public,” does not necessarily mean “reduce all risk.” It means working with the public to develop an optimal balance of benefits, costs, and risks on a case-by-case basis in making decisions and developing effective engineering solutions.

Beyond Minimizing the Chance of Failure

Engineering design practice tends to focus on reducing or preventing the possibility of failure: preventing loads from exceeding capacities, preventing deformations from exceeding allowable values, preventing motions from exceeding tolerable thresholds. The title and lede of a recent cover story in PE Magazine illustrate this emphasis: “Tragic Reminders. Recent events such as tainted drinking water, a safety scare in the nation’s capital, and a toxic waste release reiterate the irreplaceable role that professional engineers play in ensuring2 the public health, safety, and welfare” (Kaplan-Leiserson 2016).

There are many important considerations in design beyond reducing the chance of failure:

  • How does the system perform after it has “failed” and can it be designed to fail gracefully? Can a floodwall be designed to gradually pass water as the flood pressure increases (e.g., with cleverly designed fuses), rather than abruptly collapsing and releasing a powerful rush of water that can cause significant damage to property and life?
  • What are the possible consequences of a failure and available means to manage them? In addition to checking the hydraulic, geotechnical, and structural stability of a levee system, how about including checks of the transportation system for the capacity, efficiency, and quality3 of evacuation?
  • Can the system be readily adapted to changing conditions in the future? If the 100-year flood level changes with new information or due to changing climate or land-use conditions, can the heights of levees or walls be raised (or lowered) efficiently in the future?
  • What is the actual lifetime of an engineering system and how can it be controlled? If the design life for a levee system is 50 years, can it be designed to be readily reused, relocated, or modified at the end of 50 years?
  • What are the risks, costs, and benefits associated with providing for different chances of failure? Instead of focusing only on the most cost-effective way to meet a design criterion, what is the optimal balance of risks, costs, and benefits for a specific project?

Design standards and guidelines (i.e., precedent) play a significant role in advancing engineering beyond reducing the chance of failure. Progressive design approaches that promote rather than stifle creative and “nonstandard” solutions are needed. If the optimal solution depends on project-specific risks, costs, and benefits (and may change with time), then there cannot be uniform or absolute design criteria. If an impediment to successful evacuation in advance of a flood is the infrequency of the need (i.e., people are surprised and not prepared), then is a better solution to design for more frequent flooding so that preparedness is a regular way of life?

Moreover, design practice tends to focus on components (e.g., individual columns, piles, levee reaches, gates, or pumps), whereas it is the performance of the system that really matters to the safety, health, and welfare of the public. Design approaches must consider the performance of the overall system, including how it might fail and how the consequences of a failure can best be managed.

In addition to improving design standards and guidelines to better address factors beyond failure, the engineering profession needs to engage and listen to the public in order to serve the public welfare:

  • Involve the public meaningfully in significant design decisions. The stakeholders paying for and affected by a levee system should participate in establishing the level of protection provided by that system.
  • Communicate clearly with the public about the costs, benefits, and risks of different design alternatives. If members of the public are going to be engaged, they need to be as informed as possible in participating in the decision making.
  • Engage the public from the beginning and throughout, from conception to design, implementation, and operation. A single public meeting in which the preferred solution is presented for comment is not an effective way to involve the public.
  • Recognize that the public is diverse, with as many perspectives and values as there are individuals. While consensus may be impossible, transparency, effective communication, and active inclusion are all achievable.
  • Work collaboratively and continuously with non-engineers who are experts in public relations, sociology, psychology, public health, and economics. Effectively engaging the public requires expertise far outside of engineering, and it is the ethical responsibility of engineers to not practice in areas outside of their competence.
  • Ensure that the expertise of the engineering profession is included in major policy and design decisions.
  • Be open to criticism and change. While there are “rights” and “wrongs” in mathematics, there are no single “right” solutions to serving the welfare of the public. Solutions may change over time and with setting.

In the example of managing risks from floods, the optimal solution for public welfare may be to spend more resources on levees at the expense of resources allocated to major dams, or to spend more on land-use planning and evacuation and less on levees and dams.

Role of Engineering Education

Engineering education plays a key role in moving beyond protecting to serving the public. The challenge is that traditional engineering education is centered on mathematics—math classes dominate the technical classes in the first two years of a typical undergraduate curriculum and are prerequisites to nearly every other technical class.

Math is clearly necessary, but there are two downsides to this strong focus.

  1. There are right and wrong answers in math. Even in probability and statistics, the subject is traditionally taught with problems where there are single correct answers for a probability value or a confidence interval.
  2. Math is an individual exercise that does not require communication, interaction, or collaboration.

Thus although math is essential to solving engineering problems effectively, additional knowledge, skills, and perspectives are essential to best serve the public.


Engineering education should embrace uncertainty throughout the curriculum. There needs to be a consistent message to all students, from freshman to continuing education classes, that there is uncertainty, that it is not bad, and that there are effective techniques to help manage it.

  • Illustrative examples of uncertainty should be presented in every subject. For example, the 100-year wave height in the central Gulf of Mexico was 22.6 m based on nearly a century of data—until three hurricanes in just two years (2004 and 2005); it is now 28.1 m (API 2013).
  • Practical exercises should be developed and implemented to help students learn how to assess uncertainty. Meteorologists are very effective at assessing (and communicating) uncertainty because they have to practice it every day.
  • Problems and case histories should be provided in which uncertainty is managed by developing solutions that are either insensitive to the uncertainty or that accommodate the range of possibilities posed by the uncertainty. One example of a case history is engineers’ finding that offshore oil and gas platforms with four or more legs fared much better than those with three legs when wave heights exceeded design values, thanks to the added redundancy and robustness (Energo Engineering 2007, 2010).

Experiential Learning

Engineering education should rely more heavily on experiential learning. The best way for engineers to learn how to interact with and serve the public is to practice doing it. Structured exercises, preferably working on real problems with real public stakeholders, should be integrated into all levels of engineering education. The key to an exercise being structured is to allow for the possibility of failure, because the best learning comes from failure:

  • When students are unprepared at a meeting with city representatives they learn that they better have a firm grasp of codes and regulations before they start trying to solve a problem.
  • When students are questioned by a professional engineering mentor about an unreasonable cost estimate they learn to be careful about reviewing and understanding the information they present.
  • When students inadvertently promise the public something that is not possible they learn about ethical responsibility.

An added benefit of practicing on real-world problems is that the students are both serving the public before graduating and, in the process, educating the public about engineering.

Public Involvement

Engineering education should emphasize public involvement. Engineers should be an integral and active part of all communities, from neighborhood associations to Congress. Encouraging engineering students to participate in local planning activities could lead to greater participation throughout their careers and possibly even lead to more engineers running for public office.


Holding “paramount the safety, health, and welfare of public” is not necessarily best achieved by minimizing the chance of failure. Instead it is achieved by working with the public to develop an optimal balance of benefits, costs, and risks on a case-by-case basis in making decisions and developing effective engineering solutions. The catch is that it is easier to minimize failure than it is to figure out what best serves the interests of the public.

Engineers can better serve the public by addressing not only the chance of failure in design but also factors such as performance, adaptability, endurance, and costs and benefits. They should also develop more progressive design standards and guidelines, and work more closely with the public. These opportunities can be realized by improving engineering education so that students embrace uncertainty, practice on real projects, and understand the importance of public involvement.


API [American Petroleum Institute]. 2013. Derivation of Metocean Design and Operating Conditions. Recommended Practice 2MET, 1st ed. Washington.

Borenstein S. 2008. An American life worth less today. Associated Press, July 10.

Durkin E. 2015. New York will fund $100M flood protection project to shield lower Manhattan from major storms. New York Daily News, August 27.

DWR [Department of Water Resources]. 2008. Delta Risk Management Strategy Phase 1, Risk Analysis Report. Sacramento.

Energo Engineering. 2007. Assessment of Fixed Offshore Platform in Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Report Prepared for the US Department of the Interior Minerals Management Service, MMS TAR No. 578. Houston.

Energo Engineering. 2010. Assessment of Damage and Failure Mechanisms for Offshore Structures and Pipelines in Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Report Prepared for the US Department of the Interior Minerals Management Service, MMS TAR No. 642. Houston.

Gilbert RB. 2013. Expert Engineering Independent Third-Party Review, Briscoe-Desimone Levee Design, Green River Basin, State of Washington. Prepared for the King County Flood Control District.

IPET [Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force]. 2009. Performance Evaluation of the New Orleans and Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Protection System, Vol. VIII: Engineering and Operational Risk and Reliability Analysis. Final Report. Washington: US Army Corps of Engineers.

Kaplan-Leiserson E. 2016. Tragic reminders. PE Magazine, May/June.

Smutniak J. 2004. Living dangerously. The Economist, January 22. Available at

USACE [US Army Corps of Engineers]. 2014. Safety of Dams: Policy and Procedures. ER-1110-2-1156. Washington.

US Army. 2015. Engineers take protecting New Orleans personally. Army News Service, August 17.

USNRC [US Nuclear Regulatory Commission]. 1975. Reactor Safety Study: An Assessment of Accident Risks in US Commercial Nuclear Power Plants, NUREG-75/014. Washington.

Whipple C. 1985. Approaches to acceptable risk. In: Risk-Based Decision Making in Water Resources, eds. Haimes YY, Stakhiv EZ. Proceedings of an Engineering Foundation Conference, ASCE, Santa Barbara, November 3–5.


1 For example, there was some public discussion about spending more money on the levee system in New Orleans, using a 500-year versus 100-year design basis, but after resistance to the idea it was not pursued.

2 Note that the first canon in the code of ethics is to “hold paramount,” not “ensure,” the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

3 The quality of an evacuation is determined by factors such as people’s ability to take their pets and the availability of suitable shelters to accommodate evacuees.

About the Author:Robert B. Gilbert, PE, is Brunswick-Abernathy Regents Professor in Soil Dynamics and Geotechnical Engineering in the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.