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Thread: Legal question

  1. #1
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    Legal question

    Hello all,

    I am in a hell of a predicament at work. I am being tasked with designing a piece of "military equipment" (I am being intentionally vague here) for an external customer that has the ability to kill or maim if there is a design oversight on my part. I am not a P.E., nor do I have a graduate degree in any engineering discipline. I have a lesser degree in a technical field. There are only two “engineers” left. My boss does not have any degree, and has been firing "engineers" (which is an internal job description only) like crazy. I am under the impression that he does not have the mental capacity to understand what he is fiddling with. He seems like quite a reckless, indifferent individual. In other words, no one at my company is even remotely qualified to be designing something like this. As far as I know, we have never employed anyone who had the credentials or talent to be doing anything remotely like this. I am guessing the customer has been lied to about our abilities. I know they have P.E.s on staff, so I am not sure how this situation came to be. “Engineers” from the two companies have never interacted with one another during my time here.


    What the heck should I do? Would this fall under the responsibility of OSHA? I am terrified of losing my job, but obviously don’t want our customer’s employees to be killed or maimed. Should I be in contact with a lawyer?

    Please help.
    -perseus


  2. #2
    Technical Fellow jboggs's Avatar
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    "Should I be in contact with a lawyer?"
    Yes.
    If we're talking the USA here, your "responsibility" might depend on what state you are in. A lawyer might tell you that your status as an employee may protect you from direct legal action. But then again, maybe not.

    On a different facet of this: Has your company promoted itself as an engineering company? Has it used the word "engineer" in any descriptions of itself or its services? In many jurisdictions, if they do not directly employ a full time engineer licensed in that state they are actually breaking the law. I know of companies that were shut down for that reason.

    Public and human safety are the reasons there are things like design codes for things like buildings, bridges, electrical devices. There are also commonly accepted factors of safety in designing structures or machine members under stress. There are also common testing and prototyping procedures to identify design weaknesses or likelihood of misuse or abuse. "But your honor, we never dreamed that someone would use it like that!"

    Bottom line is this: whether its "legal" or not, if you don't feel confident that you can achieve a safe design in the environment you're in, you only have one choice. You know what it is.

    I have designed machines that could hurt people for 30 years. There are many opportunities I have turned down. I keep a picture at my desk. Its a removable work platform I designed for temporary access to equipment 40 feet above a hard concrete floor. It was to be installed and removed using an overhead crane. It had locking tabs that guaranteed it was properly attached before workers moved out onto it. Even then the workers were to be tied off. A guy was installing it one night and noticed that it hadn't slipped down fully into the locking tabs. Without tying off he went out onto the platform, which was still attached to the crane, and JUMPED on it to try to seat it. Rather than seating, it flipped over sideways. He was just barely able to grab the handrail and was left dangling 40 feet above the floor. He broke a lot of rules and is no longer employed here. No one blamed me but that would not have made my nights any easier if he had fallen and gotten injured or worse. I would have blamed myself for not foreseeing that possibility. The picture of that platform hanging sideways from the crane remains in front of me to this day as a reminder of the seriousness of my job.

    I have worked for bosses like you describe. Sees himself as a "self-made man"? Always confident of success but never willing to take time to consider details? Quickly blames others for his failures? Sounds like the man is a disaster that just hasn't happened yet. Do yourself a favor. Consider this a learning experience and move on to the next one.

  3. #3
    Administrator Kelly Bramble's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jboggs View Post
    "Should I be in contact with a lawyer?"
    Yes, what jboggs said.

    Though, carefully consider your actions. If you don't feel qualified communicate that clearly to all concerned and don't burn any bridges.

  4. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by jboggs View Post
    "Should I be in contact with a lawyer?"
    Yes.
    If we're talking the USA here, your "responsibility" might depend on what state you are in. A lawyer might tell you that your status as an employee may protect you from direct legal action. But then again, maybe not.

    On a different facet of this: Has your company promoted itself as an engineering company? Has it used the word "engineer" in any descriptions of itself or its services? In many jurisdictions, if they do not directly employ a full time engineer licensed in that state they are actually breaking the law. I know of companies that were shut down for that reason.

    I strongly suspect they use the word "engineer" very, very loosely. They keep us pretty well insulated from vendors, customers, which I think is by design. We are not allowed to communicate directly with a customer or sister organization. Additionally, there is a lot of animus and distrust directed at college-educated people.

    Public and human safety are the reasons there are things like design codes for things like buildings, bridges, electrical devices. There are also commonly accepted factors of safety in designing structures or machine members under stress. There are also common testing and prototyping procedures to identify design weaknesses or likelihood of misuse or abuse. "But your honor, we never dreamed that someone would use it like that!"

    Bottom line is this: whether its "legal" or not, if you don't feel confident that you can achieve a safe design in the environment you're in, you only have one choice. You know what it is.

    I have designed machines that could hurt people for 30 years. There are many opportunities I have turned down. I keep a picture at my desk. Its a removable work platform I designed for temporary access to equipment 40 feet above a hard concrete floor. It was to be installed and removed using an overhead crane. It had locking tabs that guaranteed it was properly attached before workers moved out onto it. Even then the workers were to be tied off. A guy was installing it one night and noticed that it hadn't slipped down fully into the locking tabs. Without tying off he went out onto the platform, which was still attached to the crane, and JUMPED on it to try to seat it. Rather than seating, it flipped over sideways. He was just barely able to grab the handrail and was left dangling 40 feet above the floor. He broke a lot of rules and is no longer employed here. No one blamed me but that would not have made my nights any easier if he had fallen and gotten injured or worse. I would have blamed myself for not foreseeing that possibility. The picture of that platform hanging sideways from the crane remains in front of me to this day as a reminder of the seriousness of my job.

    I have worked for bosses like you describe. Sees himself as a "self-made man"? Always confident of success but never willing to take time to consider details? Quickly blames others for his failures? Sounds like the man is a disaster that just hasn't happened yet. Do yourself a favor. Consider this a learning experience and move on to the next one.
    That last paragraph - it's like your a psychic, or something.

    So what kind of lawyer should I see? A labor lawyer?

  5. #5
    Technical Fellow jboggs's Avatar
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    Probably any local lawyer familiar with civil law.

    The last boss like that I worked for actually fired me after one week. Well actually he had one of "my employees" fire me because he was chicken to face me. Thank God! The man was a fruitcake. And he was dealing with electronic navigation systems for F-16 fighter jets! I googled him a couple years later and guess what! He was in jail for fraud. What a surprise.

    Another thing after 30 years - you learn to trust your gut and follow it.

  6. #6
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    The thing that scares me the most is their frequent skipping of heat treatments. I've been out on the floor several times, peeking at parts I've worked on only to see the heat treatment operation on the traveler crossed out. I guess they figure that since they can't see it, it doesn't matter.

  7. #7
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    This sounds absolutely crazy, and I would definitely start looking into a way of protecting yourself if something goes wrong and so you can get some in-depth advice :S

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