June 2017

The positive impact of registered professionals

  • By Dawson Wilkie, Chair, The Board of Professional Engineers of Queensland

Registration is fundamental to being a professional and is beneficial and necessary to protect the public, maintain public confidence and uphold standards of practice

Professional registration – be it for doctors, lawyers or engineers – is something sure to provoke debate amongst the individuals working within that profession. Some feel the registration of professionals is essential, while others see it as a bureaucratic burden. It is my ardent belief that registration is fundamental to being a professional and is beneficial and necessary to protect the public, maintain public confidence and uphold standards of practice.

Registered professional engineers in Queensland

Under the Professional Engineers Act 2002 (PE Act), registration is required for anyone carrying out a professional engineering service in Queensland or for Queensland. There are two narrow exceptions: first, for a person who carries out a professional engineering service under the direct supervision of a responsible registered professional engineer (RPEQ); and second, an engineering service that is carried out only in accordance with a prescriptive standard.

Registration conveys many personal benefits. It demonstrates a high level of qualification and competence and a commitment to professional and ethical conduct. Registration is a key way a profession is distinguished from an occupation. Registration demonstrates a supreme confidence in professional and ethical conduct by the willingness to be accountable for that conduct to an independent entity. I feel the unprecedented growth in the number of RPEQs in the last 18 months means the views of many engineers on this subject align with my own.

While debate within the profession usually focuses around the pros and cons of registration at a micro-level, the benefit of registration to the wider community (the public, government, industry) is understated.

Registration is restricted to those persons who have studied engineering – generally a four-year undergraduate engineering degree (though equivalent forms of learning may be accepted in some circumstances). To obtain registration, engineers must also have worked in their chosen field carrying out engineering services for several years to develop practical competency and experience. Only once these requirements are met can someone apply for assessment for registration. Registration locks out unqualified and inexperienced persons from carrying out professional engineering services. The public can immediately determine from someone holding the RPEQ title and number that they are a qualified, competent and experienced engineer. By only ever engaging an RPEQ (for instance, to design the footings and slab of a home), the public can rest assured that the services they are provided are of a certain standard, and in the event something does go wrong, there is a dedicated process to investigate and resolve the matter.

Implications for the minerals industry

Although the requirements for registration are becoming more widely and better understood, the interaction of the PE Act with the mining sector’s governing legislation, the Mining and Quarrying Safety and Health Act 1999 and the Coal Mining Safety and Health Act, is still discussed with uncertainty by some AusIMM members and engineers in the mining and resources sector.

At law, the PE Act applies to all professional engineering services in or for Queensland, including those carried out on mine sites. The mining sector’s legislation and the PE Act have different focuses: the former focuses on health and safety while the latter focuses on the quality and appropriateness of professional engineering services and the appropriate registration of persons who carry them out. The sector’s legislation most commonly interacts with the PE Act when it requires that tasks only be carried out by persons competent to carry them out. If the task is a professional engineering service, the PE Act is clear that the only competent person is an RPEQ. The PE Act does not conflict with the sector’s legislation. On the contrary, it complements the sector’s legislation to achieve its purpose, which is to decrease risk and ensure health and safety of workers on mine sites. It does so by ensuring that all professional engineering services are carried out by appropriately qualified and experienced engineers assessed by The Board of Professional Engineers of Queensland (BPEQ) as fit to practise and accountable to BPEQ for their conduct.

RPEQ sign off

Many RPEQs would have been asked about ‘RPEQ sign off’ during their careers. It is important to note that RPEQ sign off is not defined or even mentioned in the PE Act and RPEQ sign off will not satisfy the requirements of direct supervision. Having an RPEQ sign off on a professional engineering service is used as a form of quality assurance; some organisations have even written RPEQ sign off into their work processes, further evidencing the benefit of registration to industry and employers. Because the requirement for and meaning of sign off or certification is not contained in the PE Act, the parties giving and receiving the sign off or certification should ensure they understand where the requirement for it comes from and what it means. Is it to mean that the person giving the sign off actually did the work? Or only directly supervised it? Do they take responsibility for all of it, or just a part of it? What does the sign off mean in terms of quality of work? To what standard has it been carried out, or with what documents, standards, or tolerances is it being certified to comply? And finally, in what capacity, and to what extent, is the person giving the sign off taking responsibility for the work? The name and signature of an RPEQ on a document could mean many things. These are all questions that it would be prudent for parties giving and receiving sign off or certification to have answered in advance.

Using registered professionals in practice

By using an RPEQ (either when employing or contracting) there is a level of guarantee provided to the organisation that the engineer has appropriate qualifications and demonstrated competency to carry out professional engineering services. Government engineering positions and many private sector employers specify that any applicant must be an RPEQ or be able to obtain registration. Having engineers who are not registered places a significant burden on the employer organisation to ensure direct supervision. Direct supervision is only intended for early career engineers and it is critical that employers understand the relationship between an RPEQ supervisor and supervisee is transactional rather than hierarchical.

Perhaps the greatest incentive for companies to only employ or engage an RPEQ is financial. Various court rulings have established that by carrying out a professional or technical service while not holding an appropriate licence or registration an individual or company forfeits the right to pursue payment for work performed. Up until recently, these cases generally involved builders and civil contractors. But the ‘no licence/registration, no pay’ principle applies equally to those in engineering in light of the Queensland Supreme Court’s decision in Queensland Engineering & Electrical Pty Ltd (QEE) v Agripower Australia Ltd (Agripower).

Agripower engaged QEE to carry out electrical engineering and electrical works at its powder and granulation plants. QEE entered into the contract with Agripower without having RPEQs or electrical contractor licensees. After a payment dispute between the parties, QEE lodged an adjudication application under the Building and Construction Industry Payments Act 2004 (BCIPA). QEE was initially successful in securing an adjudication decision against Agripower – worth $60 000. In response Agripower applied to the Queensland Supreme Court for the adjudication to be voided, owing to the fact the contract with QEE was illegal and unenforceable, as QEE had not complied with the PE Act and Electrical Safety Act 2002. The Court dismissed counter arguments from QEE and found in Agripower’s favour. The Court expressed that clear wording in the PE Act prohibited QEE from being entitled to payment if they carried out professional engineering services while unregistered. The decision extended to the electrical works performed by QEE.

Engaging with the minerals industry in Queensland

BPEQ recognises its responsibility to engage and educate engineers so that they and their employers comply with the PE Act. BPEQ has travelled to Ayr, Barcaldine, Charleville, Emerald, Gold Coast, Mackay, Mount Isa, Richmond, Rockhampton, Roma, Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba, Townsville and Yeppoon to hold seminars and workshops with engineers; plus numerous seminars and workshops in and around Brisbane.

A specific sector BPEQ does want to engage more with is mining and resources. As mentioned previously, it appears there is a degree of confusion about how the PE Act applies to engineers in the mining and resource sector. BPEQ has recently written to the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines and the Mines Inspectorate requesting their support and collaboration to ensure compliance with the PE Act.

BPEQ has set itself the ambitious target of having all engineers who provide engineering services in Queensland registered. This is a long-term target, but one I am confident we are on our way to achieving. Registration is beneficial for the profession and the wider community and BPEQ will continue to actively advocate for and promote it.

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