Maintenance Ethics

By Joel Levitt

maintenance ethicsIf you have helped to maintain the operation of equipment or facilities, you can probably relate to these scenarios:

You’re wiring a machine. The code calls for 10 AWG wire and you have none in stock. Your supervisor says “Wire it up with 12 AWG and be quick about it.”

You are working on a tower during a critical plant shutdown. The attachment point looks dicey to you due to corrosion. There has been intense pressure from top management to complete the work on time. You should come down and set up scaffolding and get the welder to redo the point. But that would make the start-up late. You are already there and only need half an hour to finish up.

A truck rolls into the shop on Friday with a potentially problematic disc brake and an important load for a new customer. The dispatcher is all over you to get the truck out the door. The supply house calls and it will be Monday before brake parts come in.

Where do ethics come into play? At what point can a maintenance person stand up and say “No, that is not right.” Every company has insubordination rules that exempt the worker from following any instruction that would be unsafe. But what if you invoke them on a hunch that the attachment point looks dicey to you? What would happen?

These are very difficult questions because there is no certainty that an issue exists. The machine that calls for 10 AWG wire might be perfectly fine with 12 AWG. In the maintenance field we do not have much experience answering these kinds of questions.

Doctors study medical ethics in school. They argue about end-of-life decisions, risks versus benefits of various drugs and therapies, and confidentiality of patient records. If you read the doctor-only websites, ethics play a major role in what people are reading and discussing. There is a well-regarded body of knowledge about ethics available to doctors.

Everyone likes to bad-mouth lawyers. But even lawyers discuss ethics. They consider topics like what is privileged information, what to do with certain information, and how to handle every-day, sticky human interactions ethically.

In addition to medicine and law, professions with codes include dentistry, social work, education, government service, engineering, journalism, real estate, advertising, architecture, banking, insurance and human resources management. Generally, failure to comply with a code of professional ethics may result in some sanction or even expulsion from the profession.

Do maintenance ethics exist? When maintenance people gather, do they discuss ethical issues? At maintenance tradeshows, are ethics a popular topic? Is there a board of maintenance ethics? Now there are places where maintenance pros are encouraged to step forward. Think airlines. In the airline maintenance department there is a long-standing tradition of grounding unsafe equipment. We frequent flyers are very happy this tradition exists.

Before we can even discuss the issue for other types of maintenance we have to agree on how we define ethics and why it’s significant. More importantly, what is the function of ethics in relation to our field?

The term comes from the Greek word ethos, which means "character". (This is a great start since most people would agree maintenance people are characters.) Ethics has two dimensions. First, ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues. Second, ethics refers to the study and development of one's ethical standards. (Survey “What does ethics mean to you?”, Raymond Baumhart, 1987).

The conversation boils down to this: where is the line? Do we have well-founded standards of right and wrong? If a manager tells the maintenance person to do something, at what point should the maintenance person stand up and say “No, doing that goes against my ethics.” How sure does the maintenance person have to be before the ethics consideration kicks in?  Unlike the doctor or lawyer the maintenance professional stands alone. There is no professional body or body of knowledge and there are no maintenance ethics experts.

Considering tragedies like Deep Water Horizon, the Bay City refinery and the West Virginia chemical spill, we should ask were there maintenance professionals wanting to do the right thing but either explicitly or implicitly silenced?

These are interesting questions with real-world consequences.

Joel Levitt has over 30 years’ experience in the maintenance field including process control design, source equipment inspection, electrical expertise, field service technician, maritime operations, and property management. A recognized expert at training maintenance professionals, Joel has trained more than 17,000 maintenance leaders from 3,000 organizations around the world.

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