The Ethics of Engineering in the Construction Field

In the construction world, time is money. Civil engineers are constantly up against the clock in a race to make deadlines and complete projects on time in order to receive contract bonuses. Any delay whether it be big or small is met with dismay from those involved in the project as it makes deadlines harder to achieve. This can be problematic as excavating a site can uncover all sorts of archaeological findings, such as ancient artifacts and even human remains. According to federal law, when findings such as these are discovered, they are to be reported to the supervisor who notifies the onsite archaeologist. The archaeologist then examines the findings and determines if they are of significant value. If found to be significant, then the project must be halted until a thorough investigation is conducted. Depending on the nature of the find, projects may be delayed for months. Unfortunately, many construction contracts do not include clauses regarding archaeological discoveries, usually due to contractor oversight, which can lead to projects missing their deadline and thus not receiving a bonus. As a result, workers or engineers who uncover findings may feel inclined not to report them. This is not only unethical, but also illegal, resulting in fines and imprisonment. It is important for civil engineers to think ahead when planning a project and to examine the historical background of the site before breaking ground. Doing so can help identify potential archaeological delays, which can then be factored into the construction contract. Not only can this help a project meet its deadline, but also can preserve important historical records.

Coming across an archaeological finding during a construction dig is not as rare as one might think. This is especially true in urban areas of the United States where early American settlements can date back to the early 1600’s. Additionally, Native American presence on the land dates back thousands of years. When considering the length of human activity in the United States, it is not surprising that artifacts are frequently discovered on construction sites. In 2013, over 120,000 federal construction projects required the intervention of archaeologists as a result of findings [1]. This resulted in the examination of over 135,000 artifacts, causing numerous delays [1]. In 2015, the construction of a new bus center in downtown Indianapolis was delayed by 7 months when remnants of an old building were unearthed on the site [2]. While the discovery of the building did not require months of examination, the entire site was delayed as workers were unable to work around the unearthed structures. With the frequency of artifact discovery across the United States, it is beneficial for civil engineers to think ahead and consider this when negotiating contract deals as a way of minimizing delays and protecting bonus deadlines.

It is important that artifacts discovered during construction digs are properly reported as they provide archaeologists with significant information about the past; furthermore, this process is legally required. According to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA), archaeologic findings on federal lands are protected and thus must be properly reported on when discovered, or else the person(s) can face fines and/or imprisonment [3]. Proper procedure in the construction zone dictates that the discoverer must immediately notify the project supervisor on any such discovery. The supervisor then consults with the onsite archaeologist who determines the significance of the find. If deemed to be significant, federal law prohibits any further construction in that area of the site until a thorough archaeologic investigation is conducted. This becomes more complicated when the findings are of human remains, especially those of Native American ancestry. In this case, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is enacted in addition to ARPA. NAGPRA is designed to protect Native American sacred items and remains by repatriation to their tribes. These discoveries result in consultation with tribes over the ethical way to remove and relocate these finding without causing cultural injustices [4]. This consultation requires even more time, which can further delay a construction project. While problematic for contractors, these delays are necessary to give respect to these findings as they can hold significant historical and cultural value.

The federal laws regarding artifacts were enacted to outline what should happen in the event of discovering an artifact. In the construction field, this task is given to the onsite engineers, who oversee the onsite work. Many construction contracts operate on a specific timeline that does not include margins for significant delays. As a result, an engineer may feel inclined to not report any potential finding to meet the deadline, resulting in a bonus for the engineer. For example, if a project is already delayed, and an engineer, while doing their inspection, notices a clay pot fragment sticking out of the ground, that engineer may feel inclined to ignore it and allow the project to continue. Otherwise, they would risk a potential delay if the onsite archaeologist were to deem that fragment to have significant value, thus requiring a proper investigation. According to the wording of the federal laws, a penalty can only be enforced on the “known” disruption of artifacts and remains, meaning that there is no penalty for accidentally or “unknowingly” disrupting such findings [5]. This wording creates a loophole for engineers who pretend that they did not notice the findings. Since it is very hard to prove what someone did or did not see, especially in regard to a small pot fragment, it would be very hard to prosecute the engineer under federal law. The engineer may not be in legal trouble; nevertheless, it would be unethical as it would violate the code of ethics set forth by the American Society for Civil Engineers.

The American Society for Civil Engineers set forth a code of ethical guidelines which civil engineers should follow. Although not enforced by law, the code of ethics is a statement of the fundamental values on which all civil engineers should operate [6]. A civil engineer that fails to report an archaeologic finding would violate Canon 6(a) of the code, which states, “Engineers shall not knowingly engage in business or professional practices of a fraudulent, dishonest or unethical nature” [7]. By choosing to ignore a specific archaeologic finding due to the fear of missing a deadline, the engineer would prioritize personal profit over historical data which could potentially be beneficial to archaeologists, historians and anyone who may consider the finding to have value. Due to the possibility of delays, engineers may harbor adverse feelings towards archaeologists who can be viewed as making the engineer’s job harder.

This tension does not have to be the case. If civil engineers were to plan ahead and consider the historical background of the site, then they could assess potential archaeologic delays before even breaking ground. For instance, the construction company could hire a team of archaeologists to properly survey the site and determine its historical significance, thereby allowing the engineers to factor potential findings into their completion deadline [8]. However, not everything can be identified in advance, so the engineer should also factor in delays due to the uncovering of lost artifacts such as undocumented burial grounds or fossils. Furthermore, when draftingthe construction contract with the manager or investors, the engineers should negotiate a clause that adjusts the deadline for archaeologic delays as federal law does not require deadline bonuses to be adjusted due to findings. Doing so would create a more flexible completion deadline for the engineers while also giving time for the archaeologists to fully examine the significance of the findings. This can help create a more positive relationship between the onsite engineers and archaeologists by allowing both to properly do their jobs without having to impede on one another.

With the prevalence of archaeologic findings in the construction field, civil engineers need to think ahead and account for potential delays. Archaeologic artifacts are protected under federal law, and improper handling of such findings can result in expensive fines and jail time. Due to the wording of the law, small discoveries on a construction site may make an engineer feel inclined to overlook these findings in order to allow the project to finish in a timely manner. While the engineer may be able to avoid any legal repercussions from such actions, one cannot deny that these actions are in direct violation of the code of ethics for civil engineers. Although there is no legal penalty for breaking this code, an ethical engineer must follow the code as it sets forth the guidelines on how a civil engineer should act in order to best benefit society. Instead of breaking the code of ethics, a civil engineer should plan ahead and work with archaeologists in a manner that will minimize delays while also allowing the archaeologists to fully analyze such findings. Doing so can create a positive work environment in which both professions can best benefit society.

By Alex Lin, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California


[1] K. Slowey. “Digging up Delays: How to Handle Unexpected Archaeological Finds on the Job Site,” Construction Dive, 9 Feb. 2017. [Online]. [Accessed: 04- April – 2018].

[2] J. Briggs. “Archaeological Findings Put IndyGo’s Downtown Bus Transit Center 7 Months behind Schedule.” Indianapolis Star, IndyStar, 28 Dec. 2015. [Online]. [Accessed: 04- April – 2018].

[3] ARPA, “NPS Archaeology Program: The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA),” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior [Online]. [Accessed: 04- April – 2018].

[4] NAGPRA. “NPS Archaeology Program: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA),” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. [Online]. [Accessed: 04- April – 2018].

[5] K. Kimbourough. “Unearthing Archaeological Finds on a Jobsite,” Construction Business Owner Magazine, 26 Apr. 2016. [Online]. [Accessed: 04- April – 2018].

[6] C. Clutchnik. “What You Should Know about Archaeological Finds on Construction Sites,” Equipment World What You Should Know about Archaeological Finds on Construction Sites Comments, 30 Dec. 2015. [Online]. [Accessed: 04- April – 2018].

[7] ASCE “About ASCE.” American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). [Online]. [Accessed: 04- April – 2018].

[8] J. Essman. “Archaeology Doesn’t Have to Cause Construction Delays,”, 10 Aug. 1998. [Online]. [Accessed: 04- April – 2018].