A century ago, individuals could perform engineering work without providing proof of competency. This, of course, put people at great risk. In order to protect public safety, health, and welfare, the first engineering licensure law was enacted in Wyoming in 1907. Today, states regulate the practice of engineering to ensure public safety by granting only Professional Engineers (PEs) the authority to sign and seal engineering plans and to offer their services to the public. The PE is responsible not only for their work but also for the work of those they oversee.
Some government and private industry engineering positions are staffed by Professional Engineers. But, for many companies, the task of staffing projects with Professional Engineers is not required due to the “industrial exemption.”
In an industrial exemption, a Professional Engineer is not required to oversee a project and provide their seal of approval. Instead, the company assumes liability for the project. These exemptions are intended to apply to companies with internal processes and safeguards in place that provide supervisory oversight to all engineering projects. These engineering projects are thus able to circumvent state professional licensing laws. Because the company is assuming responsibility for the projects, the seal of the Professional Engineer is not required.
Many states allow industrial exemptions with certain stipulations.
- The engineer must be an “employee of a public utility, state agency, or manufacturing company.”
- The engineering work must be incidental to the products or non-engineering services of the engineer’s employer.
- The engineer must not be offering services to the general public.
The Enigma of Engineerings Industrial Exemption to Licensure: The Exception that Swallowed a Profession, published by the Liberty University School of Law, posits that the industrial exemption arose in the 1940s when leaders of public utilities and industrial firms launched a counterattack against the rise of state licensing laws. Instead of seeking a repeal of the licensing laws, these entities sought exemption of industry employees. Instead of the engineer taking responsibility for the plans, the firm took responsibility for their engineer’s work and was liable for any negligence.1
There are those that support industrial exemption. The industrial exemption policies exclude industrial employers from requirements to hire only engineers who hold professional licensure in the states in which they are employed. Companies that operate in several states point to the lack of uniformity in licensing laws and regulations among the states. Thus, they argue that the requirement of multiple licenses becomes an unnecessary burden to the engineers and companies.
Manufacturing in the United States has taken a hit over the years. Those that argue for industrial exemption assert that it would be a hindrance to create additional obstacles to job creation and mobility. They also assert that, especially within the manufacturing industry, it brings down industry competitiveness within the global marketplace. And, that properly insured entities have a vested interest in protecting the safety and welfare of their employees, facilities and the general public. Because, they argue, companies that receive exemption have certified that they have in place procedures and safeguards to comply with the laws. Some companies also emphasize that they offer additional in-house training.
Joseph Cramer, the past Director and former Head of Technical Programming for the American Industry of Chemical Engineers, argues that chemical engineers tend to be very mobile geographically and across industrial sections. In a 2014 press release, he noted, “While it might seem like a simple solution to just require all engineers to obtain and maintain a P.E. license in order to practice engineering, the current situation is very fractured with more than 50 licensing boards across the U.S., each with a different set of licensing rules and regulations that establish who can practice engineering and where.”2
Those that argue against industrial exemptions stress that the purpose of licensing engineers is to protect the public. The Professional Engineer should possess the education and experience to take personal responsibility over the design and safety of the project. Thus, providing a loophole that eliminates the requirement of a Professional Engineer overseeing the project leads to increased risk to the public. Exemptions place individuals and organizations performing engineering services outside of the licensing system and projects carried out are not subject to the same legal and ethical requirements.
If a Professional Engineer were in place, the risk to their reputation and career would insist that they pay very close attention to the details of the project. Industries where a Professional Engineer is extremely important involve those projects that directly and drastically impact the public and the environment, including deep-water oil and gas drilling, nuclear power generation, pharmaceuticals and bioengineered food. In the May 2011 issue of Professional Engineering Magazine, Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers, Larry Johnson, stated: “If PEs were required by state and federal government to sign and seal documents, I submit they’d be much more careful about approving designs, much more protective of the public, and much less likely to be pressured by the economic needs of their employers.”3
The National Society of Professional Engineers has been vocal about the application of industrial applications. The entity is adamant about their policy, stating, “all engineers who are in responsible charge of the practice of engineering as defined in the NCEES Model Law and Rules in a manner that potentially impacts the public health, safety, and welfare should be required by all state statutes to be licensed professional engineers. NSPE recommends the phasing out of existing industrial exemptions in state licensing laws.”4 The NSPE has worked with a number of organizations to insist that projects are staffed by Professional Engineers. In response, the EPA issued two rules that require a PE: a PE must be the final rule on emissions related to municipal solid waste landfills, as well as the insistence that a PE be involved with all oil and gas sector projects. The NSPE also worked with the House of Natural Resources Committee to require a provision that insists a PE prepares and seals documents related to cleanup of abandoned mines.
The debate continues about industrial exemptions. With powerful organizations on both sides, it remains unclear about what the future holds for industrial exemptions.
1Spinden, Paul M., “The Enigma of Engineering’s Industrial Exemption to Licensure: The Exception that Swallowed A Profession” (2015). Faculty Publications and Presentations. Paper 72. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/lusol_fac_pubs/72
2AICHE Affirms Strong Support. https://www.aiche.org/about/press/releases/05-07-2014/aiche-affirms-strong-support-both-licensure-and-industrial-exemption
3Industrial Exemption or Exclusion? https://www.nspe.org/resources/pe-magazine/may-2011/industrial-exemption-or-exclusion
4NSPE Makes Progress Campaign Against Exemption https://www.nspe.org/resources/blogs/nspe-blog/nspe-makes-progress-campaign-against-exemptions
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