Engineering and Risk Analysis

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Introduction

Sometimes, people tend to forget or ignore precautionary and safety principles at work, home, and/or during leisure. Approaching risk-associated activities with negligence and/or care-free attitudes has often resulted in a permanent or temporary disability for some people. For others, it has resulted to death. Unfortunately, even careful and risk-conscious individuals might suffer from the actions of a non-precautionary risk-taking person, such as a drunk driver. Although engineers take efforts to minimize the risks that are associated with the technologies they manufacture, through old or innovative methods, their efforts do not necessarily guarantee total safety.

 

Human error will always be one of the major factors that raise the chances for a tragic situation to take place. Sometimes, the lucrative nature of hazardous industries, such as manufacturing of nuclear products and the proper disposal of nuclear and/or industrial waste, makes it difficult for stakeholders, government agencies and all seeking to profit from cheap risk management to exercise ethical concerns. However, public health is being exposed to environmental degradation and ecological ruin. A string of issues such as risk management, precautionary principles, engineering/business ethics, and the factors that influence decisions as relates to public health and safety, have raised more questions and provoked different actions in the recent years.

Business Ethics

Considering the effect and role of business ethics with respect to precautionary principles and risk management, Shrader-Frechette discussed how governmental and stakeholder decisions can jeopardize/risk human safety for personal interests (755). After several decades of researching and studying the best preferable options for nuclear waste disposal, policy makers and scientists agreed and concluded that geological disposal of highly radioactive industrial waste products is the ideal method.

This decision is based on the fact that radioactive wastes are health threatening and pose themselves to the well-being of mankind. Shrader-Frechette argues that the conclusive and quantitative risk assessment of the Yucca Mountain as a site suitable for nuclear waste disposal is estranged with scientific uncertainty and future vulnerabilities (755). Therefore, her concern is more driven by how much the government and stakeholders are willing to influence and jump-start the usage of the Yucca Mountains as a nuclear waste disposal site rather than thoroughly considering the interest of Nevadans.

Considering the risks and the scientific uncertainties associated with the construction and use of the Yucca Mountain as a nuclear disposal site, Government officials, contractors, Scientists and consultants were all optimistic and eager to build and approve the site for exploitation. On the other hand, it was obvious that their intentions were more affiliated to financial concerns and not the risk and health hazards that could affect the lives and well-being of the Nevada's population. Furthermore, more than 80 percent of the then Nevada population strongly opposed the idea. However, rather than seeking or assessing other sites, the government attempts to exert all available means to make the inhabitants of the City succumb to its intentions.

Shrader-Frechette contends the government's intentions by indicating that no one, not even the scientists that have been studying the site can guarantee the safety of Yucca Mountain (754-755). Furthermore, the level of uncertainty is unquantifiable. Thus, ethics requires the government, the energy industry, and involved scientists to indulge in the limitation of false negatives. As opposed to the idea of prudent risk taking, Shrader-Frechette denounces any idea based on deriving other methods to cope with the negative effects that may emanate from the use of the Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste disposal site (754-755).

However, the author concludes that the nuclear energy industry , the government , and the contractors/consultants-"the iron triangle"- acted unethically by ignoring public consent, welfare, and health concerns towards industrial risk in favor of profit-based market allocation (754-755).

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Engineering Ethics and Waste Management

Continuous economic growth is usually presumed to be a key solution to poverty alleviation in any country, and mostly for under-developed countries (Gunn 135-131). This opinion upholds the fact that economic growth is affiliated to industrial development, which means more production, more factories, more power plants, higher energy consumption, and more jobs (Gunn 135-131).

However, environmentalists view this economic sequence the results into the only thing that concerns them the most - environmental pollution and ecologic degradation. In an attempt to strike a balance between the two opposed interests, policymakers create environmental policies (Gunn 135-131). Such policies are beneficial but require a certain level of financial cost to maintain. The cost of adhering to environmental policies seems to be another issue that interferes with the cost cutting and profit maximizing intentions of economists, and respective business owners around the world.

Imagining a world with a continuous and gradual decrease in environmental pollution would probably make environmentalists and ecologist feel better, but would it aid the personal finances or the millions of people who are engaged in one production chain or the other?

The answer is no. In the same case, one can easily determine that a booming economy is essential to the livelihood of millions of families; but its environmental effects could ruin the possibility of a healthy and decent environment for the future human, animal and plant generations. As a result of the biased interests, environmental policies charge engineers with the responsibility to properly dispose off accumulated industrial waste in different efficient and non-pollutant/less pollutant ways.

The Effect of Toxic Waste and Pollutants

According to Gunn 137, only future generations would be able to assess the level of biodegradation and toxic pollution that is continuously ejected into the current environment (137). Moreover, scientists determined the adverse effect of toxic emissions and pollution on the future generations to be mostly heath issues such as death, birth defect due to gene mutation and cancer due to constant exposure to hazardous wastes (Gunn 136-137). Therefore, Gunn states that the proper management of waste is actually the safe management of waste (136). Safe management of waste exhibits a specific outline of criteria. These criteria are those created or influenced by persons who are well-informed and directly or potentially affected by pollution and are considering personal interests (Gunn 137).

Safe waste management is also influenced by the criteria established by well- informed altruists who put the interests of persons likely to be affected into consideration (Gunn 137). Lastly, safe waste management criteria could otherwise include the interests and proposals of persons who themselves and/or their families would be potentially affected improper waste disposal. Such criteria are forwarded to decision-makers for further consideration and implementation into regulative laws and policies (Gunn 137). Improper hazardous waste disposal is regarded as a disturbing ethical issue that has attracted the attention of many professionals and scholars due to its harmful nature.

Almost all ethical theories endorse the fact that it is wrong to engage in any activity that will harm others except if they pose a risk to one's own well-being. However, the exceptions in cases where one is legally or ethically allowed to cause harm to others are well defined under specific conditions, such as defending one's country at war, or family from an assailant, among others. It is generally agreed upon that the safe disposal of waste is in everyone's interest, both the present and future generations. Gunn suggests other ethical ways of managing the existing effects of improper waste disposal:

Negotiating and compensating affected persons for deterioration or natural resources, health, and property value among others (Gunn 136-137). Since most people who are well aware of the risks associated with waste disposal facilities, such groups of people could use their political power to resist the construction of a waste processing or disposal site in their localities.

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Putting future generations into consideration during policy drafting and including their interests in environmental policies (Gunn 136). Allowing people within a locality to decide whether they want to give a radiation emission from waste sites in their community.

Gunn stresses the fact that it is still uncertain how much long-lived radioactive waste has been improperly disposed. However, radioactive wastes are still accumulated from time to time, and no one is sure if they are properly disposed, as well. Furthermore, there has been no assurance so far as to whether improperly disposed radioactive wastes are controllable or not (Gunn 138).

Therefore, once again affirmatively proving that future generations will bear the consequences of the present generation's actions. The United States is presumed to be the strictest country in the world that mandates waste collectors and disposers to maintain dumpsites (Gunn 139). However, the American 1976 Statute of Resource Conservation and Recovery Act indicates that dumpsite operators must engage in "perpetual care" of the dumpsites, but the definition of Perpetual care, in this case, was set to be thirty years (Gunn 138-139).

Engelhardt and Jotterand examined the properties of the precautionary principle with respect to the assessment of long ranged, and /or remote catastrophes (302-303). Specifically, according to the study of such tragedies and/or catastrophes, they are probably related to the development of certain technologies and the possible catastrophes that might emerge in the absence of such technologies. However, risk taking and the effects of taking risks on the general public should also be taken into account. Engelhardt and Jotterand discuss psychosocial rationalism in precautionary measures taken by different individuals due to how they categorize and measure risk, further explaining the precautionary principle of individual in a contractual form (302).

They also compared the decisions of a person who prefers to drive a car on a three-hour journey to a particular city and another individual who prefers to take a direct one-hour flight to the same city based on the psychosocial reasoning that two hundred persons could die in one airplane crash, and that road accidents could claim the lives of two hundred persons in the course of a year. Another vivid example is the fact that the same amount of people who could end up being disabled or dead from the accident of a nuclear power plant; is the same amount of people that could die or become disabled from the generation of an equivalent amount of electric power with the aid of fossil fuels.

The basis of Engelhardt and Jotterand argument is rooted in the fact that no technology should be developed or produced in any form whatsoever, if it is not provable that it will not endanger human lives. Despite the enormous benefits that technology and innovation offer to mankind, it still poses a socially disruptive manner of death affiliated to catastrophes. The precautionary principle is variation in individual principle, employed for rationing and reasoning in order to avert evitable risks with maximum emphasis on large-scale catastrophes (Engelhardt and Jotterand 303-304).

In an attempt to note that engineers are not to think of themselves as morally neutral, Busby and Coeckelbergh examined the risk attached to the outcomes of an engineer’s job (363-365). Risks are a part of almost anything that was ever built or designed by an engineer. The reasons are simple, all innovative technology built to help man adapt to his ever-changing environments are the same gadgets that put his life at risk whether low or high. The social ascription to engineers would be some sort of plea coupled with a warning. In the sense that engineers must be well aware of the risks to which they will be exposing other people while they work on any form human aid. It is also quite unrealistic to conceive that an engineer would consider what is morally expected of him during the course of his work (Busby and Coeckelbergh 364).

How often engineers put people into consideration while at work is more of a skeptical, than a real question. Asides the engineering code of ethics by which they have to abide and whether engineers do consider human compatibility and the level of satisfaction a consumer would derive. Although, safety first as the motto implies, engineers are less likely to think of the environment and how they put it a risk (Busby and Coeckelbergh 363). This kind of behavior is not as a result of the fact that they do not care, it is not just part of their job to bother themselves with such elaborate ethical reasoning. It is the job of another professional to determine if an engineer's job is liable to cause potential harm or not.

Engineers apply utilitarianism, based on the fact that engineers naturally make decisions and with respect to quantitative analysis. This simply means that most engineers are used to taking orders from a specific manager, which makes their jobs sort of a routine. Having all this in mind, some scholars believe that engineers think like consequentialists, suggesting that they even rarely practice cost-benefits decision analysis because, they as engineers are always ready to take risks to make something better.

The Busby and Coeckelbergh's argument, in this case, concludes that engineers do not really engage in determining what morally matters, and if they do, it is not guided by an ethical reasoning (364-365). Meaning that engineers practice self-determination of what is wrong and what is right. Therefore, Busby and Coeckelbergh believe that engineers will hopefully apply a simple definition of what is good for other people through self-inspection and empirical research based on what other people expect. Ascribed ethics is important because it forces engineers to put into consideration what other people expect of them; whereby making them responsible for their decisions/actions and accountable to others (Busby and Coeckelbergh 363-365).

Ascribed ethics also allows a person to unravel his/her personal ethic by being concerned about what others expect. This way, they will gradually become concerned and put into consideration the risks that are associated with the end user's well-being. Furthermore, Busby and Coeckelbergh insinuate that ascribed ethics is a facilitated moral imagination, and moral imagination is a vital part of personal ethics, which can only be developed by allowing one's self to discover ascribed ethics (363-365). In other words, a person could be very truthful and diligent in performing their duties, and still be ignorant with no good content.

Risk Assessments of the 80's

The intent to make people feel that they need to do things in a different, more efficient and advanced way with innovative technology/resources spun into the American society in the 1980s with a higher dimension than ever before. The good thing about this era was that the public was more concerned for their welfare than politicians were, which can be regarded as a bad thing, as well. Questions about nuclear energy, asbestos, insecticides and pesticide among other things gradually became associated with the possibilities of harm being caused to the human environment. However, the government had engaged itself in the comparative and quantitative research of the endorsement of goods meant for public consumption.

Lowrance argued that in order for the government to define the numerous cases that suggested environmental pollution, it had to be very specific and explicit with the characterization of risks. The government would only be able to assess and measure the uncertainties and certainties of risk-associated goods. On the other hand, Lowrance claims that humans create new problems by and for themselves by seeking new ways to solve problems.

In the nick of all this happening, people in some cities, such as New Jersey and Ohio, were already concerned about the industrial waste management, and sought the government's support to tidy -up but not shut down factories and industries related to such waste disposal problems (Lowrance n.p.). At the same time, others decided to make their opinion against nuclear power plant by massively using their political power to vote for political candidates who were environmentally conscious.

During this period, as noted earlier, the public played a very crucial role in bringing the government's attention to how much risk they were being exposed to (Lowrance n.p.). The publics' apprehensiveness finally gradually began to pay off little by little. Constantly asking themselves and the government about current life-threatening cases exposed the existence of more and more risk factors. All this effort paid off and led to healthier infant life, people living longer, and lower risk of residue harm; due to reduced exposure to risks.

Healthy measures were taken when the government started tackling diseases by employing biochemists to seek new technologies for curing heart diseases, cancer, and smallpox. The next break-through came in the form of vaccines, which reduced infant mortality rate. Another conclusion was that the causes of heart diseases were affiliated to a person's unhealthy lifestyle, or the impact of the environment they live in. After a couple of qualitative research and analysis carried by James Fries on the mortality rate of U.S citizens, it showed that life expectancy was deteriorating in average adults and no American would live beyond 85 years of age. The American government immediately started making efforts to improve risk assessments and became somewhat more comparative.

This trend and the review of the earthwork dams led to the Amendment of the Clean Air Act, Toxic Substance Control Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. It was done to ensure public protection from environmental hazards and enhance healthy living. Medical X-ray protection practices were also put into check. After several years of tackling the problems of pollution and risk effect, the American government started to evaluate the benefits and the health cost of other products that were perceived to have future side effects, an example of such was Saccharin. Through further research and food-safety policies, the government was able to further control edible goods that contained justified but hazardous chemicals such as mercury and aflatoxin in peanut butter.

Conclusion

In conclusion, engineering should take responsibility for measuring and reducing risks so that the general public would not have to live as lab mice all their lives. Research and risk determination should be carried out on goods before they are introduced to the general public through markets. However, Toxic wastes will continuously emerge, scientists and industries involved with the use of nuclear components for their production and supply chain processes should consider adopting inscribed ethics. By doing so, more precautionary measures would be exercised towards waste disposal and environmental protection.

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