The 1970s Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) is a case that explores ethical issues from engineer’s side. BART is a commuter railway system, which serves in uniting three counties in the San Francisco Bay Area. This particular case discusses three engineers, who worked on BART and reported technical problems within the automatic train control system (ATC). Commuter rail system was under construction, which was carried out by a subcontractor, Westinghouse Corporation. They noticed that the ATC had a technical problem, and decided to report the case of system malfunction to their managers. This action was taken as engineers came to the conclusion that the problem may impose risk to the public safety. Three responsible employees submitted oral and written reports on the technical issues they discovered. The manager ignored their reports. As way of dealing with ignorance of their manager towards public safety, in 1971 engineers brought their written reports to the member of the BART board of directors, Daniel Helix. Helix decided to present the report to the ATC and later brought these reports to the board members of the BART to one of the board meetings. The board ignored the safety risk reports as well. In a while, engineers that blew the whistle on the company’s reckless safety behavior were fired from their workplace without any written appeal. BART obstructed them from getting a new job. In a year, they decided to file a lawsuit against BART for unfair discharge suit.

Ethical problems of the case

In this case BART board of directors and their managers did not make ethically correct decision. They had decided to fire their employees, Blnkenzee, Bruder and Hjortsvang. Not only this was highly unethical way to deal with the problem, company did not even give them a notice.  This was happening, simply, for the reason that engineers had been responsible individuals with strong moral standards, who presented company with reports of a safety issue that arose from the engineering work of subcontractors. The board of directors decided to rely on the convenient truth from the subcontractors without double checking all the facts, as it should have been done, if taking this issue seriously. As no proper action regarding reports were taken one may conclude that this situation is truly unethical, as this would not be a proper way to deal with life endangering situations. The engineers were exercising their ethical values in their professional work. The board of directors could have taken the matter seriously without relying on the convincing report from the Westinghouse Corporation. They should not have fired the three engineers without taking the matter into consideration. The board of directors had to devote to this instance needed attention and carry out thorough investigation before making conclusions. Firing employees without notice was to say the least, unfair, however, creating obstacles for their further employment takes meaning of corporate conspiracy to the whole new level. It could have been at least half right if the BART would have served them a notice and let them lose in pursuit of new job opportunities. If the company would be really looking to cover up their mess, by doing so they could have avoided all the fuss.

In addition, BART board of directors cannot be blamed for their decision as it was based on the legal documents supplied by their subcontractor. They acted upon the data provided by previously well trusted Westinghouse Corporation and the effective argument made on the non-technical presentation. Since board of directors was presented with sugarcoated information and had no direct access to the technical data, they had to assess the situation based on the information given.  They decided to rely on the convincing and at the same time corrupt information presented to them by the Westinghouse Corporation instead of carrying out their own rigorous investigation. Their decision was based upon the convincing issue raised by the subcontractors. The board of directors was unable to focus on the technical mess caused by the subcontractors. Can they be blamed for acting upon presented data? No. Should they have done more, per say conducted their own investigation? Yes.

The blame cannot be put on the engineers or managers. Everybody was trying to do their job as they perceived it. The responsibility in this case should be laid on the subcontractors, who knowingly cooked up phony presentation with obstructed facts on the real condition of the situation. What should be raised in one’s mind, is the question if non-technical representation of the subcontractors was a fair representation of solving the actual problems. This raises concerns about their to the BART board of directors that made the three engineers be fired. According to Kline (15), engineers were honest and totally objective in their reports and statements. However, the Westinghouse Corporation did not follow their professional ethics, when they made a deceitful presentation and provided it to the BART board of directors. This presentation and unlawful actions behind it became the reason why three responsible and hardworking men were fired (Winter and Bhattacharya 78).

One may conclude that the convincing non-technical report presented to the BART board was unethical, as the ATC design flaws were not yet fixed by the time BART started to operate (Cabanatuan 15). This can be evidenced when the ATC of Westinghouse overshot the terminals during 1972 contributing to the sandpile crash of the lead car. The Westinghouse Corporation intended to fix this problem, and it seemed the BART trusted them. They had confidence in their subcontractors that contributed to their decision making. This false impression of trustworthiness prevented the board from making the right, and ethical decision of providing public safety. Westinghouse Corporation presented unethical information to the board because the fundamental cannons of the engineers require them to be totally objective and honest in their professional statements or testimonies. The Westinghouse violated the laws governing their professional work due to presentation of unethical and untruthful reports.

Although, it seems right to project responsibility on the Westinghouse Corporation yet the report may mean nothing but one of the ways a piece of data can be presented. The issue in this case is that managers and the BART board of directors can be blamed for making rational decisions. As a precaution they could have formulated strategies or make proper procedures with the help of which they could come up with clear decision making process. Furthermore, the board of directors could have interpreted data and essentially made subjective decisions. They could have made their opinion through making their own clear data analysis. They could have used their guidelines and strategies in making judgments independently from the subcontractors. Lastly, they could have come up with action plan based on their individual judgments.

The engineers are required to regard their duty and ensure that their roles do not affect the public welfare. They are supposed to observe the conditions that may affect or endanger the health of the public health. The employment guidelines require engineers to carry out engineering in a consistent manner and maintain the ethical codes. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) requires engineers to follow the ethical codes governing their profession. The engineers including Blnkenzee, Bruder and Hjortsvang, decided to present the problem at work, as it was the only way of acting within the ethical frames. It could prevent threat to public safety that resulted from incompetent engineering work. Their efforts for preventing unsafe and improper practices failed because the management team decided to reject their issue reports.

The situation that right now we are dealing with is a classic case of pure malfunction of the system and clearly underdeveloped procedures for hazardous situations. Due to the procedural malfunction BART went for information to the subject that should have been under investigation in the first place. Evidence show, this case is a good illustration how sometimes corporate authority beats the authority of a hardworking employee.

The engineers felt that it was wrong when the subcontractors have taken actions, which they saw could cause danger to the public. To their surprise this situation backfired at them instead of preventing life threatening events.  Engineers not only have been fired for no good reason, but also have not been given fair warning. This was the reason that led them to file a court case against BART. The engineers decided to report this issue in order for the authorities to deal with it in proper and serious manner, as they wanted to fulfill their civic duty. The IEEE emphasizes on the importance of practicing ethics in engineering work. Blnkenzee, Bruder and Hjortsvang, did not want to violate their ethical practices of protecting public interest. This was the reason that forced them to report unethical issues at work. After the managers ignored their written report on the non-technical work, they forwarded the matter to a member of the directing board. They revealed their ethical concerns to the benefits of the public despite the problems that arose.

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Although the case seemed to be problematic, when investigations were carried out, it was found out that Westinghouse Corporation practiced unethical roles in their work. Westinghouse Corporation has been discovered to carry out work, which imposed risks and dangers on the safety of the public. As soon as their work was reported as life threatening, they decided to convince the BART board of directors in the opposite. This was done through presenting a report which was knowingly falsified to protect their name.  They did not follow the laws governing them in their professional work. Later after investigations, it was discovered that they practiced their profession against the principles of IEEE. This principle requires engineers to be truthful and present ethical report and testimonies.

The case outcome

Subsequent events took place after the three engineers filed the case. First, the California State started investigating the matter. Bruder, a professional and licensed engineer, called the CSPE and request for support. The CSPE president phoned the general manager of BART, but the latter was not available because the BART managers fired the engineers without making an appeal. The president of CSPE decided to write about poor engineering work at BART, and send it to the California senate. This led to several studies about poor project construction. However, they forwent the engineers who triggered the investigations. Shortly after this situation BART started operating, two weeks to be precise. It did not take a long period when the BART train caused an accident; luckily it did not kill or injure anyone.

The California State Senate Committee and the California Society of Professional Engineers (CSPE) validated the points of engineers. In 1973, the IEEE committee called for the BART board of directors and intervened on behalf of the engineers. They set up procedural mechanisms for dealing with such case for engineers in the future. The BART’s case became the strong foundation for engineering ethics. The members of the IEEE supported the BART engineers on the wrongful discharge suit, and the case was conducted in1975. They argued that in case the engineers were discharged because of their nonconformity and promotion of the public safety. In case it is terminated, it should be considered as a breach of employment contract terms. Some years later, the committee members formed a group known as Member Committee Conduct (MCC) for disciplinary actions. Their role was to initiate the disciplinary proceedings against the members of IEEE who were unlawfully punished. And set their efforts on trying to work according to the ethical codes of their profession.

The IEEE’s involvement in the BART case was an instrumental one to the engineers in the contemporary society. The engineers should follow the ethical standards of engineering their profession. The three engineers who raised the issue of the substandard work were eventually proven correct for their choice. However, the justification came much later, and penalizing process was later followed on some companies involved. Through the BART case, many of the engineering firms became aware of the issue to avoid any problems, which may interfere with the present contract in any project. One can argue that the BART management teams were only concerned with the monetary profit but not the engineering aspects. This problem arises in business sectors whereby the aim is to ensure that their contract qualifications have been completed and financial goals met effectively (Unger 72).

The IEEE intrusion on behalf of Blnkenzee, Bruder and Hjortsvang, led to the final justification of the case. The outcome of the case was that the BART was required to reconsider the decision of firing the three engineers. The IEEE supported the engineers, although it was not done directly (Unger 54).Through employing some of the standards, they argued that if, the engineers were discharged because of their efforts on trying to save the public from danger; the terminations should have been a breach of employment contract. The breach of contract could have enabled them to settle the dispute easily. The BART’s decision of firing the three engineers was seen as improperly conducted. The case led to the development of the ethical guidelines and procedures that enable IEEE team take serious action towards engineers. In case any engineer practiced unethical actions, which could endanger the safety of the public.

Eventually, the CSPE wrote a report revealing poor engineering work in BART system. The CSPE officers and some other members charged the BART project subcontractor with unethical behaviors. They cited some ethical codes governing the professional work of engineers. The BART board of directors was charged for firing workers, as they were trying to act ethically in saving the public from dangers that could have arose from poor engineering work. However, towards the end of 1972, CSPE was not successful, as many engineering firms running the project of BART intruded in the case. The IEEE published a magazine article concerning the three engineers, and the way their ethical concerns were not taken into consideration. The final result was that the three engineers won the case because they were attempting to promote public safety.

The changes that resulted from the case

One of the changes that resulted from the case is the change in ethical standards which are supposed to be followed by the engineers. The case led to introduction of ethical standards which required all the engineers to follow them while carrying out their professional work. All the engineers were required to work towards promoting the welfare of the public. Any cases of unethical consequences that could result from their professional work could lead to imprisonment. The three engineers’ report was clarified, and it was considered to be ethical and brilliant ideas of public safety concern appreciated.

The second change that resulted from the case was the need for employees to make a breaching contract. Breaching contracts are considered crucial because they help in cases where the contractors and employees have a disagreeing. This will enable them to solve their cases efficiently when the matter is presented to the court. The breach of the contract is defined as the legal action cause whereby the binding agreement is violated by one or more than one parties. In case the party does not fulfill their promise or leaks the information to another party, it is termed as breaching the contract, as well. The written report was considered ethical by the IEEE who indirectly supported them. The BART committee members were urged not to make a breach of contract in the future to avoid such issues.

Another change that came out of this situation is that the department of the internal affairs filed complaints against the BART members, and a number of cases was provided for thorough investigation. The BART case was different from the previous case that was handled by the police (Sciacca 5). Formerly, the informal methods were used in handling the complaints and sometimes they were not processed. The BART case was absolutely transparent, and everything was done perfectly in order to provide better results. Sciacca reveals that, from the 60 complaint issues presented to the court, only 44 of them were investigated through the use of formal method (6). BART is one of the cases that raised alarm that attracted the attention of many people especially the engineering firms and engineers.

Some complaints brought forward to the court were unsupported or not sustained. However, BART case created a significant change in California court. Everyone was concerned with the case, and it was thoroughly investigated. The three engineers were forgotten because of too much concentration on the case. The case was unique because it revealed the types of officers, and how often they carried out investigations. The BART commuters urged that publishing the report could have reduced various complaints filed against them. Additionally, according to Sciacca, some of the police officers shot and killed unarmed passengers caused by protesting that took place in the BART. The police were trying to stop the public from protesting in the, and in the process, they killed one of the passengers.

Lastly, the IEEE and other institutions directed towards engineering decided to formulate laws and regulations governing the engineering work. They set ethical standards and code of ethics governing engineers in their professional work. This was done in order to promote the welfare of the public. The laws were to govern the engineers in their work and ensure public safety is maintained. The laws were set in order to disable the engineers from presenting false reports. The laws could help in case of issues that could rise within any organization. The roles of the engineers are to work towards accomplishing their projects while taking into consideration the public interest. And the BART subcontractor did not take into consideration the public interests. This is supported by the case when the BART commuter caused an accident due to poor construction, but luckily, it did not kill or injure passengers.


BART is a case that analyses the ethical behavior for the engineers. The BART board of directors and their managers did not make ethical decisions. The convincing non-technical report presented to the BART board by Westinghouse Corporation was falsified. The engineers are required to regard their duty, and ensure that their roles do not affect the public welfare. They should carry out their tasks in an ethical manner. The change that was included was the need for breach of contracts. This was seen crucial because it would help in solving problems in court easily. The case led to introduction of ethical standards that were to be strictly followed in engineering work. The outcome of the case is that the three engineers were finally perceived as people who were trying to maintain the interests of the public.

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