Are You an Engineering Whistleblower?

Recent changes in US law protect whistleblower. But it’s still risky business.

Episode Summary:

There is a little-known law called the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which includes a provision to compensate whistleblowers for revealing safety critical auto flaws to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Former Hyundai engineer Kim Gwang-ho is the first to receive an award under the system, taken by NHTSA from a large fine paid by Hyundai to resolve an engine fire issue. The large amount will insulate Kim from the potential loss of his career, but the larger issue for engineers everywhere is, “should I be a whistleblower?” Engineering ethics are fairly straightforward but doing the right thing may have career altering consequences. Under what circumstances should you be a whistleblower?’s Jim Anderton has a definite opinion on the subject.

Access all episodes of End of the Line on Engineering TV along with all of our other series.

Transcript of this week’s show:

To see any images, graphs, charts, graphics, and/or videos to which the transcript may be referring, watch the above video.

Is honesty the best policy? Almost always, it is, and if you’re former Hyundai engineer Kim Gwang-ho, it’s a lucrative too. Kim has just been awarded $24 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under the agency’s new whistleblower program. In 2016, Kim told NHTSA that Hyundai had failed to correct an engine issue that was causing powerplant seizures and fires and provided the agency with evidence that resulted in the company paying $210 million in penalties over the issue. Eventually, Hyundai and Kia recalled 1.6 million vehicles to address the issue. 

So what is this whistleblower program? It’s a little-known component of a law passed by the Obama administration called the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. That act came to notoriety when drafted because it permits specialty auto manufacturers to produce low volume runs of new cars based on designs at least 25 years old, without compliance with modern safety standards. The law was aimed at makers of classic car replicas like Shelby cobra and at the kit car industry. The whistleblower provision has been unused until now and it will pay Kim using part of the proceeds of the large Hyundai fine. 

It all worked out well for Kim of course, but will this produce a stream of spurious complaints and office intrigue? Maybe, but from the perspective of an individual engineer, this seems to me that the ethics are fairly straightforward: if you work for a company that is doing something that is illegal, blow the whistle. You work for company is covering up a defect or design flaw that has the potential to injure or kill people, blow the whistle. In this case, it was fairly cut and dry. Engine fires are dangerous. 

In most cases however, the grey area is very wide. If someone in your company intentionally alters your design to make your product less durable, do you blow the whistle? In my mind, no if the consequences of that change won’t harm life and limb, in the case of this legislation, that’s the standard that NHTSA will use: safety. Of course, there are other things companies may do that break the law, that are not safety critical. If you’re aware of them, you are morally obliged to report them, but outside of engineering, who has sufficient knowledge to make that call? If you don’t, then don’t. 

Your conscience is always your guide, but the important thing is to avoid the tragedy of this engineer: Roger Boisjoly. He was the Morton Thiokol engineer who uncovered the risk that low temperatures would pose to the space shuttle and recommended that the launch of Challenger on January 28, 1986 be postponed. That decision was overruled by senior-level company managers, unfortunately Boisjoly was proven correct, with the loss of seven lives. In this case, he did everything right. He investigated scientifically, wrote a report, sent a memo, solicited support of his engineering colleagues and on the morning of launch, refused to sign off on the flight. But afterwards, he had to live with the inevitable sense of guilt. “Could I have done more? Should I have done something else?” 

Boisjoly was eventually awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility, and became an advocate for engineering ethics, but commented publicly that he was haunted by the Challenger disaster. Most of us will never be put in that position, thankfully, and at least in the automotive industry there is now a way for engineers to take that nuclear option and go to the regulator if absolutely necessary. 

But before you go down that road, your primary ethical consideration is to do anything you can to keep it in the family and act internally first. Talked to trusted colleagues. Investigate scientifically, like Boisjoly did. And if that doesn’t work, and lives are at stake, pull the trigger. It may be career altering, but in the long run will be glad you did.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.