The American Society of Mechanical Engineers is not exactly a household phrase. But the technical codes and standards it develops for industry and government affect the pocketbooks and safety of most consumers.
THE ASME has issued standards for gas pipelines, boilers, plumbing, food and drug equipment, hoists and cranes and hundreds of other parts and products. When legislatures give state or federal agencies the job of setting safety standards, the agencies will often adopt an ASME standard as their regulation.
“It’s the only game in town,” a federal official once told me. If this is so, it makes a great deal of difference whether ASME is completely dominated by corporations and their engineers on company missions or whether professional independence and conscience can be given a. chance.
This question is central to a struggle between two unequal but contending forces that will erupt this month at a national meeting of ASME committees in Boston On one side is a group of engineers deeply worried about the “ill effects of technology” and the need to free engineers from their industry-indentured status so they can speak up and act ethically.
On the other is the engineering establishment of ASME which dislikes ASME getting into questions of policy and issues of safety deficiencies relating to nuclear power, pipelines, transit systems and other such matters. This group sees engineers as capable foot soldiers who loyally follow their company commanders.
In 1968 the consumer-oriented engineers, led by Dr. Victor Paschkis, professor emeritus, Columbia University, organized themselves into a formal group of ASME which by 1972 grew to become. the technology and society division.
THEIR GOAL is to put engineers behind the effort against technological destruction of humans and their environment and for making technology a servant rather than a master.
Engineers are used to hearing such high-sounding principles, but when tile consumer-minded engineers got down to specific cases and industries, the fur began to fly.
For example, Adolph J. Ackerman, ASME member from Wisconsin, charged that the ASME boiler and pressure vessel code had been sacrificed to the nuclear power interests at the expense of the public safety.
Last month, three case studies of engineers who pursued the public interest against corporate demands to disregard proven hazards in a California mass transit system, a fighter plane’s brakes and a nuclear plant’s welds were presented at an ASME ethics conference in Baltimore.
These papers named names of companies and their employees — something just not done at engineering symposiums.
Other engineers have called for support of worker safety laws and public interest efforts in the consumer protection area.
FOR THE establishment engineers and their ASME staff allies, these episodes moved them on the offensive against the upstart technology and society division. Last year they tried but failed to eliminate the division. This month they seek to downgrade and restrict the status of the division by obtaining the endorsement of the ASME council.
Some day novelists will write of a new valor — that of the lone engineer who stands with courage and steadfastness before the corporate juggernaut and says:,
“No, you shall not inflict these horrors on society or future generations.” Until that day, socially responsible engineers will labor, without the glamour of drama, in the fields of the ASME and company politics to win the freedom for engineers to work for a future without smog, cancerous materials, latent product defects and profitable institutional coverups.
Readers interested in expressing their opinions or obtaining copies of the aforementioned case studies can write to ASME, 345 East 47th St., New York, N.Y. 10017.