What do we owe to those for whom we labor?

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, a profile of a Canadian engineer, (now there’s a doubly invisible category!) who designs bridges:

If his work didn’t keep him up so late, he would probably wake up in the middle of the night worrying about it. He points out that the catastrophic 2007 collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis—which he wasn’t involved in—happened during construction work.

Mr. Johnson shows off a gray ring on his right pinkie: “It’s called the iron ring,” he says. In Canada, civil engineers wear the iron ring on their drawing hand as a symbol of their oath to protect life and limb. “We have to make sure everything we do is infallible,” he says.

I love the physical reminder, worn every day after graduation, that a civil engineer has chosen to create things that millions of us rely on every day to be functional and safe.

English: A Canadian Engineer's Iron Ring, Stai...
English: A Canadian Engineer’s Iron Ring, Stainless Steel Version. This is a picture of the author’s personal iron ring, received at the University of Waterloo, Camp 15, on February 17, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I really like this tradition of making a public (and/or) physical vow of responsibility.

My first husband was a physician. I attended his graduation from McGill medical school and watched his class, aloud, recite together the Hippocratic Oath, which begins with “First, do no harm.” It was powerful, moving and unforgettable. Every graduating physician says these words.

Even if they do do harm, and it happens to many of them in the course of a career, they all know they made a vow now to.

We seem to live now in an era of the deke, the dodge, the “I have no knowledge”, the denial, the shrug. We’re left to watch, in New York, the miserable, unending parade of elected officials being charged with fraud, theft, deception, bribery and corruption.

Wall Street? Don’t get me started.

I wish — how I wish! — there were similar public, shared, hallowed rituals for every profession and field of endeavor. Especially finance, politics and journalism, three fields whose decisions can profoundly alter the lives and fortunes of millions of others, people who depend on them for wisdom, good faith and honesty.

Here’s blogger/author Seth Godin on the need for great public design.

What do you think of this tradition?

26 thoughts on “What do we owe to those for whom we labor?

  1. Everyone in public office should take a vow that helping the public will be their main concern and that should cover all the fields from the collecting of refuse to the Politicians who seem to forget whose servant they’re meant to be the moment they’re in office. That covers both local and National Politicians.
    Those in the service industry like shops should take a vow that they’ll remember who they are meant to help before deciding to finish personal conversations with colleagues at the expense of the customer.
    Few of us have jobs that don’t impact on others in some way and something that reminds us of that impact and who the priority must be would be good.

  2. i think this is a stunningly strong statement. it is wonderful. i would love to do something similar as a teacher, to honestly pledge to do my best for each child.

  3. I think ethics must be taught very early in life, so that it just becomes part of who you are. It may be simplistic, but if you think you can get away with unethical, dishonest acts when you are young you will continue to do so as an adult.

      1. Well, for politicians we should give each a bracelet that says “I was elected by the people”. For lawyers they should be given a little statue for their desks that has Lady Justice on it. For doctors…they have the Hippocratic oath. For scientists, we could have an oval with an atom at the center. On one side of the oval is a mushroom cloud, the other satellites and medical devices and what-not.

  4. My husband’s a chemical engineer from U of T. He also was given an iron ring, cut from a pipe. I don’t know if all of the other Engineering faculties do it, too. It was a daily, visible reminder of his training – until he developed an allergic reaction to it and had to put it away, that is!

      1. A silver pen with the Superman logo (truth, justice & the American way)? Of course even a physical reminder can become so ordinary that we forget the meaning behind it…

  5. That is a powerful symbol. This has me thinking of The Fountainhead… Have you seen the memorial in the Financial District of Toronto dedicated to the 100+ fallen men who worked to build the skyscrapers downtown? That hit me pretty hard, and it was nice to see that despite the loss we can still remember the lesson to be safe. I thought it was a strong memorial. When I was working there someone died in a TD Tower (I worked in one) and it stayed with me for so long. He was fixing an elevator…for all of the business people. There are always risks in physical work, and we should be safe and aware (a lesson even I have learned the HARD way).

  6. I definitely love the idea of this kind tradition for the Canadian civil engineers – the symbolic ring as well as the vow. I’d love to see it adopted in other countries if it hasn’t been already. I know that as a member of Engineers Australia we have a code of ethics but that only seems to extend to engineering persons who join this group.

  7. I had bookmarked this article as an inspiration for a future blog post. I have worked in different tech sectors ever since and been held accountable – for making machinery work. Sometimes I have also cursed it to be honest, but every time I considered a change I finally chose accountability again.

    1. Thanks! And thanks for commenting…I’m honored.

      I think accountability is a really essential element of well-done work. As a journalist (which is damn stressful), any error I commit is public, as is the correction.

  8. Pingback: I Want to Be Antifragile and Have Skin in the Game | Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything

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