Whistleblowers are often viewed negatively, evoking visions of some hysterical worry wart telling people that they were doing their jobs incorrectly. Because whistleblowers are viewed as quick to sound the alarm over the slightest detail, they are often treated as a snitch or a tattletale. As such, they tend to face negative reprisals ranging from isolation among coworkers, outright or covert criticism and even career jeopardy.

Yet, in the world of engineering, the role of whistleblower has been, in some cases, lifesaving if not at least informative, possibly preventing future catastrophes. Unfortunately, such engineers historically have not been treated well, with some whistleblowers experiencing reprisals in the shape of job loss and, in extreme cases, even death. Such was reportedly the case for well-known whistleblower Karen Silkwood, a chemical technician at the Kerr-McGee Cimarron Fuel Fabrication Site in Oklahoma, who sounded the alarm on her employer’s handling of health and safety issues within its nuclear facility. On her way to meet with a New York Times journalist, Silkwood was killed in a car crash that reportedly occurred under suspicious circumstances.

Though the case of Karen Silkwood is extreme, whistleblowers continue to sound the alarm on instances of fraud, abuse and waste along with concerns for safety, despite such reprisals. Typically, the whistleblower wants to do what is right and that alone is generally reward enough for coming forward.

How it happens

Whistleblowing often occurs as a last resort, usually after someone has made the discovery of an issue or a problem within a government, an organization or a company. To deal with said issue or problem, the whistleblower generally attempts to bring the issue to the attention of his or her employer through the appropriate channels. When that fails, the individual, without further recourse, generally lets word of the problem or issue deliberately slip either before something (usually dangerous, if not catastrophic) happens.

Whistleblowing instances

The Space Shuttle Challenger

Ahead of Challenger's launch, mechanical engineer Roger Boisjoly alerted his superiors at Morton Thiokol, the manufacturer of the space shuttle program’s solid rocket boosters (SRBs), that the O-rings sealing two sections of the SRBs together failed during previous tests because of the unusually cold temperatures preceding the test launch. After repeated attempts to communicate this concern to his superiors, warning that a failure in both O-rings would result in certain disaster, his warnings went unheeded. Temperatures were forecast to be low again ahead of the Jan. 28, 1986 launch. As predicted, the colder temperatures had altered the flexibility of the O-rings, preventing them from forming a seal and the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into the flight, killing all seven crew members on board.

Although Boisjoly would eventually earn commendation for his whistleblowing efforts, receiving the Award for Scientific Freedom and Responsibility by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1988, it would come at a cost. In the time immediately following the disaster, Boisjoly was shunned by his colleagues and managers at Morton Thiokol and he eventually resigned from the manufacturer.

The case of Salvador Castro

Salvador Castro was a medical electronics engineer hired by Air Shields Inc., an engineering company in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. Shortly after his hiring in 1995, Castro was tasked with examining an infant respirator as a favor to a colleague. Noting a design flaw in a valve that could potentially expose infants to dangerously high lung pressure, Castro brought the matter to his superiors along with an inexpensive solution to the problem. The solution, according to reports, was a simple fix that would move the valve in question closer to the baby. Noting the inaction of his superiors following his complaint, Castro then threatened to notify the FDA. Castro was fired from his position; the company justified his dismissal by saying he had failed to meet the requirements to fulfill the position of a senior engineer. It took four years after Castro’s initial warnings for the company to eventually fix the respirator, only after the FDA forced Air Shield to recall the product. Luckily, there were not any fatalities associated with the malfunctioning respirator.

Despite being fired from the company, Castro would later be commended for his whistleblowing efforts.

Source: Oleg V. Belyakov / CC BY-SA 3.0Source: Oleg V. Belyakov / CC BY-SA 3.0Boeing 737 Max

A more recent example of whistleblowing in engineering has been ongoing for the larger part of 2019. Following the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max commercial airliners — Lion Air Flight 620 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Air Flight 302 in March 2019 — current and former Boeing employees called a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hotline for whistleblowers. They reported that Boeing had been alerted to issues with the planes’ angle of attack sensor, which measures the plane’s angle while it is in the air, and issues with the model’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS). A feature new to the 737 Max, the MCAS is responsible for pitch stability.

According to those early whistleblower efforts, Boeing did not report that the angle of attack sensor had experienced wire damage thanks to the presence of foreign debris. Likewise, reports from whistleblowers also pointed to the MCAS control cut-out switches as a source of concern as they reportedly disengaged the MCAS software.

All told, 346 people died in both crashes and the Boeing 737 Max was subsequently grounded.

Fast forward to the beginning of October and reports have emerged that another Boeing engineer had previously blown the whistle on the company, claiming in an internal ethics complaint from this year that while the Boeing 737 Max jet was under development, Boeing rejected a proposed safety system in favor of minimizing costs. That engineer suggested that the rejected equipment might have reduced the risks that allegedly contributed to the two fatal crashes.

Examples like the Castro case and the Challenger case have likely shaped how modern-day whistleblowing events are handled. In the case of Boeing, at least, whistleblower protections were in place to encourage Boeing employees to come forward, whereas in the Challenger and Castro cases, those resources were likely limited. That said, it is still too soon to tell what the long-term impact Boeing engineers' whistleblowing actions will mean for the future of whistleblowing, but in the short term, the impact is clear: No more fatalities linked to the issues plaguing the Boeing 737 Max.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com