July 28, 2022 / Ed Rutkowski

From the Archives: Readings in Ethics

Thanks to a fruitful collaboration with the Joint Industrial Hygiene Ethics Education Committee, The Synergist has a long history of publishing articles that present hypothetical case studies of ethical quandaries OEHS professionals may face in their jobs. We typically publish three of these articles every year. At their best, they prepare readers for how to approach ethical conflicts at work.

This post summarizes a few of these articles. Please note that all Synergist ethics case studies are fictitious, any resemblance to real people or organizations is coincidental, and any expressed opinions are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of AIHA, The Synergist, JIHEEC, or its members.

“Ethics and ESG Ratings” by Mark Katchen

Global General Appliances, an American multinational manufacturer and marketer of home appliances, has a new CEO who is enthusiastic about getting the company listed on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) scorecards. He proposes to turn the EHS department into an ESG affairs department. GGA publishes a short corporate responsibility report each year, but the CEO understands that to get listed on important scorecards, he needs a much more robust set of initiatives and metrics and a longer annual publication. Judith, a certified industrial hygienist who works at GGA, has proposed several new leading indicator metrics for environmental and safety issues. While GGA informally tracks many of these measures, Judith finds that the company misrepresents them as half-truths. She reports the shortcomings to her boss, who tells her it’s going to be an uphill slog getting senior executives and the board of directors to commit resources to improving the quality of these metrics. What are Judith’s options?

You can read the full article in the April 2022 issue. Reader responses are forthcoming in the August 2022 issue.

“Ethics of Analysis” by Alan Leibowitz

Ike, a relatively new CIH who works at a major chemical company, has been assigned to evaluate a situation at the company's main production facility, which was painted with a chemically resistant coating that had deteriorated over time. Employees encounter flaking debris from the coating in many areas of the facility, and the coating is known to include potential sensitizers. Laboratory analysis of Ike's samples indicates that the cured material will not break down and the sensitizer of concern presents no apparent risk in its present form. Ike recommends treating the material as a nontoxic dust and recoating deteriorated areas with an inert material. Almost a year later, Ike learns that the lab used incorrect reagents for analysis, based on an error in the electronic form he submitted with the samples. Upon reanalysis, the lab discovers that the sensitizer did, in fact, leach from the old cured coating and that, in rare cases, exposure could cause serious concerns for particularly sensitive individuals. Since the new inert coating was shown to be protective, and Ike has not received any reports of illness potentially related to exposure to the original coating, he decides to take no further action. Does Ike have an obligation to communicate this new information? What is his ethical obligation if he informs his management but they choose to only monitor the situation? Does the statistically low probability of harm make a difference?

Read the full article and see how readers responded in the digital Synergist.

“Revisiting Ethics and Confidentiality” by Jeff Throckmorton and Mark Katchen

This article presents two hypothetical ethical scenarios. In the first, OSHA inspectors arrive at a local refinery after receiving a complaint from a union president concerning health and safety violations. Mary, a CIH and manager of environmental health and safety at the refinery, has been assigned to escort the inspectors through the plant. She notes that the complaint does not mention overexposures during the top-loading of various fuel products. Mary has documented many instances of overexposure during loading and has been trying to get management to authorize the installation of local exhaust ventilation, but management is reluctant because of concerns about cost and has suggested employees wear respirators “for now.” Should Mary show the OSHA inspection team the top-loading area even though it was not included in the complaint? What ethical issues should she consider? What is her primary ethical responsibility?

In the second scenario, the management at P.E.L. Manufacturing has approved limited ventilation upgrades for Line A. Although the line runs only seasonally for partial shifts, it is essential to the company’s survival. Jack, the newly hired IH, has documented exposures on Line A that marginally exceed OSHA’s permissible exposure limit. The chemical in question is slightly irritating to the eyes, but the nature of the work precludes the use of respirators. Feeling pressure from management to “not do much more” until the upgrades are in place, Jack decides to drop the issue temporarily. Six months later, after the ventilation improvements are complete, Jack resamples and finds only limited reductions in exposure levels, with occasional excessive exposures. He presents his findings to management, but they tell him that the company has no more money to deal with this issue. Does Jack refer the matter to OSHA? Was he right to let the issue lie for six months? What are his long-term options?

Read the full article and see how readers responded.

“Ethics and Scope of Work” by Alan Leibowitz

The first scenario in this article introduces readers to Chloe, a highly regarded CIH who, after 20 years in the food and beverage industry, decides she would like to try working for herself. Thanks to her industry contacts and reputation, her business is initially lucrative and professionally satisfying, but over time an increasing number of her clients decide to use larger firms with in-house laboratories, and her business begins to struggle. A neighbor, aware of the challenges Chloe faces, informs her of a major solicitation her employer has put out for bid, relating to lead paint sampling and analysis, that requires a CIH. The neighbor suggests that she is in a position to influence the decision and ensure that Chloe is selected. Chloe has no experience with lead contamination but believes addressing such a basic IH concern can’t be very difficult. Should Chloe take on such a serious project despite having no experience in this area? Should she allow her neighbor to influence the awarding of the contract in her favor?

In the second scenario, Ivan has had a long and successful industrial hygiene career at Nuclear Notions Inc., a supplier of luxury home fallout shelters. These shelters are almost always buried underground and have sophisticated ventilation systems. All furnishings are selected for minimum impact on these ventilation and filtration resources. Historically, many of these products came with rigorous, but not legally required, certifications that they do not pose a risk to occupants from potential compromise of the ventilation due to off-gassing from the materials used in their construction. To reduce costs, NNI has identified a less expensive international supplier that does not have an EHS professional to certify products. Ivan’s boss asks him to sign the certification since the product specifications would not be changing with this new supplier. Ivan does not have experience in such analyses but is familiar with the existing process and accepts that if the products are identical to existing stock, then there is no new risk to consumers. His budget cannot support complete outside laboratory analysis, but he does have sampling devices that he would use to test similar products in the work environment. Does Ivan have an obligation to go beyond legal requirements to ensure that new products meet historic internal standards? How should he ensure that future cost-saving efforts properly address IH concerns?

Read the full article and see how readers responded.  

Upcoming Ethics Webinar

In the next Synergist ethics article, which will appear in the September issue, a worker at a shipping company walks off the job in response to a perceived safety risk. The article will be available on the digital Synergist website in early September.

Also coming up on Sept. 15 is an AIHA University webinar on ethics. Jan K. Wachter, CIH, CSP, CQE, CRE, CQMgr, a professor in the Safety Sciences Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, will present “The Role of Context and Reason in Ethical Decision-Making for the Industrial Hygienist.” More information is available on the AIHA website.

Ed Rutkowski

Ed Rutkowski is editor-in-chief of The Synergist.


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