Engineer Needed?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / August 31, 2006

The Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration, OSHA, requires the services of a professional engineer for certain activities regarding scaffold design and analysis. What is the significance or this requirement? The obvious answer is that it is important that an individual with specialized training and expertise participate in the design process. For example, a professional engineer is required to design an outrigger scaffold. A qualified engineer is also required for the design of a side or end bracket on a frame scaffold when it is used to support loads other than personnel loads and a professional engineer is needed to design supported scaffolds higher than 125 feet.

So, what does a qualified professional engineer have that a “qualified person” may not have? What’s so special about the status of professional engineer? What does it take to be a professional engineer? Can any professional engineer design scaffolds or are there limitations? These are legitimate questions that deserve a proper answer.

To begin with, an engineering degree from an accredited college is required. Once the degree is granted, the candidate is eligible to take the first exam, called the principles of engineering. This is an eight hour exam that determines if the individual understands the material learned in college. Following successful completion of the exam, the person is described as an engineering intern (also known as an engineer-in-training). The next step for the intern is to work under the supervision of a professional engineer in his/her chosen profession for a minimum of four years. Once this internship has been completed, the engineer is eligible to take the second half of the exam; this eight hour test addresses the principles and practices of engineering. Assuming the engineer passes this second exam, (the success rate is about 50 per cent), the individual is eligible to become a professional engineer, assuming the rights and responsibilities of the profession. Finally, the professional engineer, as with other professions, must continue the educational process by taking a certain number of credit hours of continuing education each year.

Each state in theUnited States, and each province inCanada, regulates the engineering profession. Besides the mandatory government laws, the responsibilities of a professional engineer are described in the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) Code of Ethics for Engineers: “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

1. Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

2. Perform services only in areas of their competence.

3. Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

4. Avoid deceptive acts.

5. Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.”

How does this relate to scaffolding? First, the professional engineer must comply with the applicable codes and regulations. This includes the OSHA standards, building codes, ANSI standards, and other pertinent standards. This obligation cannot be taken lightly. “Fudging” on the rules can result in significant punishment. At a minimum, the engineer will be admonished for the behavior. Depending on the severity of the infraction, the engineer can be severely fined, imprisoned and his/her engineering license revoked. The purpose of this process is to provide assurance that the scaffold design is correct. That is, when you see a scaffold design that has an engineering seal affixed, it is proof that the design has been done in accordance with good engineering principles and according to the applicable standards and practices.

To protect the profession, the use of the term “engineer” is regulated. For example, if a scaffolding company claims to have an engineering department, the department must have a professional engineer on staff. If a company claims to offer engineering services, the principals must be licensed engineers. In fact, a degree in engineering will not allow you to offer engineering services; you must be licensed. This limitation on the use of the term engineer extends to usage in other ways. For example, if you provide an “engineered layout” it must be completed by a professional engineer or under the supervision of a professional engineer. This means that professional engineers who are not involved in a specific design process but stamp the design anyway are guilty of “plan stamping,” an illegal practice subject to punishment of heavy fines and license revocation. (Plan stamping is not to be confused with design review whereby a professional engineer reviews a design for accuracy and so states the limitation of that specfic professional engineering certification.)

The use of the professional engineering seal should not be taken lightly or misunderstood. The purpose of the seal is not to spread the liability as some might think. The real liability is in the fraudulent use of a professional engineer’s stamp and/or the implication that a design was completed by a professional engineer when it was not. The engineering profession does not look kindly on this type of behavior. Instead, the seal on a scaffold design is proof that the design is correct and will provide the anticipated results without risk to safety and health. The seal is your assurance that the work has been done correctly and that you can rely on the provided information.

Tags: Employees OSHA Standards & Regulations professional engineer Resources

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David H. Glabe, P.E.

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