The regulator’s standards and guidelines development team has stepped up efforts not only to provide more professional practice information but also to learn how this service is being fully utilized by the membership.
Although it might lack the pizzazz of Dear Abby columns, PEO’s practice advisory service
continues to find ways to raise its profile and value to Ontario’s engineering community. Practice guidelines and related published information havealways been an important resource the regulator provides to members in search of information on various areas of practice.
However, as regulators of all stripes are continually challenged to prove their value to government overseers and the public, it’s crucial that all information sought by licensees is accessible, readily understood and, above all, put into practice.
Traditionally, information flows to members by way of published performance standards,
practice guidelines and occasional bulletins. These are produced in conjunction with other frontline resources for practitioners, including telephone hotlines and website links that put members in touch with practice experts.
As the administrator of a self-regulating profession, PEO is responsible for regulating the practice of professional engineering by ensuring practitionersconform to generally recognized norms of practice. Naturally, this includes serving as the go-to place for member questions about professional practice, licensing or related regulatory matters.
It’s accepted that practitioner adherence to quality standards for professional services plays an important part in shaping both the role and the image of the profession.
To ensure this is done, the Professional Engineers Act (PEA) gives PEO Council the authority to establish, develop and maintain standards of practice that must be followed by all practitioners. Practitioners also benefit by regarding performance standards and practice guidelines as benchmarks that help them determine the proper level of service they need to provide.
Some 10 years ago, however, PEO began paying more attention to guidelines and standards development for practitioners. At its January 2007 Council meeting, PEO approved definitions for practice and performance standards to be used as the basis for future development of professional standards. Council at the time also approved a professional standards policy to cover the development, implementation and monitoring of practice and performance standards. In a key administrative move, the new policy required that PEO practice and performance standards be incorporated in regulations.
The policy instructed PEO’s Professional Standards Committee (PSC), the committee responsible for developing practice standards and guidelines, to create regulations prescribing standards of practice and standards of performance that provide explicit instructions to practitioners and the public about mandatory professional responsibilities.
In some ways, this development was “not a moment too soon.” At the time, PEO’s director of policy and professional affairs, Bernard Ennis, P.Eng., wrote in Engineering Dimensions: “In the 23 years since the PEA came into force, not a single professional standard has been created (e.g. between 1984 and 2007).”
The new policy set two types of standards mentioned in the engineers act: performance standards (outcomes of a task) and practice standards (specific list of subtasks necessary to complete the task successfully).
As Ennis noted in early 2008, standards are not step-by-step manuals. Rather, they provide goals to aim for but leave judgment in the hands of the practitioner. Standards are intended only to ensure that practitioners are clearly informed of the obligations and responsibilities associated with specific tasks.
With the new policy and regulations in place, since 2008 PEO has been working to overcome a dearth in standards development work.
STANDARDS AS REGULATION
The first performance standards to emerge are those that are part of Ontario Regulation 260/08, which covered building construction and demolition. In keeping with the aim of emphasizing performance and service considerations over technical matters, the standards outline certain tasks licence holders must complete when involved in construction or demolition projects.
PEO’s performance standards and guidelines work was given more urgency by 2012 in the wake of the Algo Centre Mall collapse in Elliot Lake, Ontario, a case that only recently ended with former engineer Robert Wood being acquitted on charges of criminal negligence causing death (see p. 17). Although under licence suspension at the time, Wood was the last person to assess the Algo Centre Mall before its sudden collapse, which killed two Elliot Lake residents and caused severe economic disruption throughout the entire community.
The Elliot Lake incident and subsequent inquiry revealed, among other things, that PEO had few resources to offer in the building design and inspection sector, particularly with respect to structural condition assessments of existing buildings. In response, PEO recommended creation of performance standards and practice guidelines for practitioners in this crucial area of public safety and protection. One of PEO’s recommendations was subsequently adopted by Elliot Lake Inquiry Commissioner Paul Bélanger in his final report.
PEO’s practice advisory group received a flurry of calls and questions from practitioners in the wake of the Algo Centre Mall collapse. Many inquired about their obligations in doing various building assessment work. PEO responded in part in November 2012 with the release of practice bulletins dealing with structural engineering assessments of existing buildings.
PEO’s practice bulletins are like practice guidelines but are developed for urgent issues or where a short document shelf-life is expected. Bulletins are also used for interpretations or supplements to more detailed guidelines. Customarily, bulletins are incorporated into guidelines at the earliest opportunity.
Concerns over structural engineering culminated in one sense with this year’s completion of the 32-page Structural Engineering Design Services for Buildings Guideline. This is the first of PEO’s fully redesigned guidelines that the regulator believes will create more buzz in the engineering community and, in turn, encourage members to use the information imparted.
But there is more involved here than making guidelines more attractive and reader-friendly. The effort reflects the PSC’s stepped-up interest in surveying the practice landscape, making note of the most pressing concerns and, in turn, providing the most relevant information. With the hiring of Standards and Practice Manager José Vera, P.Eng., MEPP, and Standards and Guidelines Development Coordinator Sherin Khalil, P.Eng., for the last few years PEO has devoted additional resources to provide more timely practice information to licence holders.
Accompanying the information-delivery efforts is a recent study by PEO’s policy team on the effectiveness of existing printed guidelines and how they are being used by practitioners.
As PEO Policy Manager Jordan Max asked members in late 2015: “When do you contact PEO for practice advice? Why (or why not)? How useful are professional practice bulletins, guidelines or standards in helping you improve your practice or integrate new expectations? What other issues, questions, products, services or formats could also be helpful?”
Max described PEO’s first-ever practitioner-centred research study, or PCR, as a “deep dive” effort to examine and better understand professional engineering practice in Ontario from the licence holder’s point of view.
HEARING FROM PRACTITIONERS
Over the course of the study, volunteer participants offered PEO details about what goes on in professional practice. The idea is to allow the regulator to better determine what public safety risks might exist, where such risks might emerge, which professional practice elements still need to be regulated, and which could be regulated in a different way.
The PCR also invited participants to report the kinds of activity that influence practice behaviour and how practitioners interact with the regulator on professional practice issues.
An important element of the PCR also focuses on the effectiveness of communications efforts—including bulletins, standards and guidelines—and how effective these are in imparting practice information.
Although the results of the PCR are still being analyzed, a few issues have already come to the fore. As Vera notes: “We know little of how members are using the guidelines. The project will use those findings and insights to redesign our professional affairs instruments and services for greater effectiveness and provide mechanisms that will ensure they continue to be effective.”
One of the preliminary findings is that practice guidelines could be made more attractive and readable by adopting a new design and content style. “The new guideline format idea originated from a survey in the PCR,” Vera says. “In brief, there were comments that the practice guidelines could have a more readable, user-friendly format.”
More concerning perhaps is evidence from the review that while about 75 per cent of PEO members are aware of the guidelines, practitioners have not been making much use of them. “Therefore,
as a starting point, we want to find out who is using our guidelines and how they are using them,” Vera says.
The first fully redesigned guideline, Structural Engineering Design Services for Buildings Guideline, was released earlier this year. A second redesigned guideline, Structural Condition Assessments of Existing Buildings and Designated Structures Guideline, is scheduled for release sometime this summer.
For years, the guidelines were produced and distributed in leaflet form. Paper copies are still available at PEO headquarters; however, electronic versions of guidelines have become the norm.
The guideline-and-standard production effort operates alongside an active professional practice telephone hotline that responds to an average of 600 inquiries per year from licence holders and members of the public.
The team has also completed a Practice Advice Resources and Guidelines web page on PEO’s website (www.peo.on.ca/index.php?ci_id=30387&la_id=1), which is akin to an electronic almanac of practice information. In addition to the full contents of available practice guidelines, practice bulletins and performance standards, the web page includes practice-related articles that have appeared in Engineering Dimensions. The page also contains staff contacts, presentations staff have made on practice issues, and a section on common practice advice topics.
Three of the most common topics on the page are use of the professional engineer’s seal, ethical concerns surrounding conflict of interest and an engineer’s duty to report, and guidance on the professionally acceptable manner to review the work of another licence holder.
In discussing the role of the standards and guidelines development team, it’s important to understand its full jurisdiction. While practice matters are fair game for providing information, the team is not permitted to advise or offer opinion on employment or technical questions, contract conditions or on an individual practitioner’s recommendations. As well, the PSC group cannot offer engineering opinion on any project or situation.
What’s more, PEO’s practice advisory team cannot provide legal advice, and the guidance provided by staff does not constitute such advice. Instead, licence holders should consult with a legal advisor on specific, factual situations. Practice advice offered by PEO is provided on a general basis and does not apply to all case-specific situations nor does it replace professional judgment.
Licence holders are responsible for their own actions and remain accountable for their decisions. PEO’s practice advisory team welcomes questions from licence holders on professional practice issues and their responsibilities under the PEA.
If practitioners still have practice questions after having reviewed the guidelines, they can still contact the PEO practice advisory team at email@example.com.