NICK RICE, MSOH, CIH,
is manager, corporate industrial hygiene services at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, Utah. He can be reached at Nick.Rice@imail.org.
Most industrial hygienists would agree that they should obey laws and regulations as reflected in the American Board of Industrial Hygiene’s Code of Ethics, which states that industrial hygienists should comply with laws, regulations, policies, and ethical standards governing the professional practice of industrial hygiene and related activities. But in some cases, what is legal may not be ethical. Lying to a colleague, for example, is not considered ethical, but it’s generally legal. LAW MEETS ETHICS Law and professional ethics collide in certain situations, and this issue is not unique to the industrial hygiene profession. Recently, a series of reportedly botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona have raised ethical concerns for the medical profession related to lethal injection, as injection in general is a procedure commonly associated with medicine and the medical setting. These executions have called into question whether lethal injection is a “humane” method of execution. To address these concerns, some are proposing that execution teams include licensed, practicing physicians, which poses an ethical dilemma for medical professionals, who are dedicated to the preservation of life. Pharmacists are drawn into the mix as well, since state regulation generally requires a prescription before a drug can be dispensed.
While it is not illegal for a physician to participate in lethal injection, the Code of Medical Ethics of the American Medical Association (AMA) specifically indicates that physicians should not participate in legally authorized executions. This creates a sticky situation for medical professionals.
Fortunately, industrial hygienists don’t have to face quite the same dilemma that physicians, nurses, and pharmacists are being forced to consider in this scenario. But industrial hygienists are certainly familiar with situations in which ethical obligations go beyond legal duties. WHEN SCIENCE AND REGULATION DON’T ALIGN Industrial hygienists committed to protecting worker health routinely face issues where science, professional ethics, and laws and regulations do not align. Take hearing conservation, for example. It is widely accepted that the OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 90 dBA with a 5 dB exchange rate is not adequately protective. Most other nations, including China, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense, ACGIH, and NIOSH, recognize a protective exposure limit of 85 dBA with a 3 dB exchange rate. While it is “legal” to rely only on the OSHA PEL, is it the right thing for workers if the employer is simply in compliance with the law? In this case, our ethical obligations as industrial hygienists exceed legal duties and minimum compliance standards.
What should we do in situations where the law isn’t adequate to protect workers’ health? Here, the industrial hygiene profession can learn something from the AMA’s Code of Ethics, which indicates that physicians should work to change the law when they believe a law is unjust. Just as in the medical profession, it’s important for industrial hygienists to pursue changes to law where necessary to ensure that regulations better reflect the current science, our profession, and our professional ethics and duty to protect worker health. But that path is not always easy. For example, most industrial hygienists are well aware that the socio-political rulemaking process for OSHA PELs is lengthy and onerous, but it is imperative that the profession continue pursuing the PEL update process to ensure that laws are adequately protective.
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It's Legal, But Is It Ethical?
When Ethical Obligations Surpass Legal Duties
BY NICK RICE
"Industrial hygienists committed to protecting worker health routinely face issues where science, professional ethics, and laws and regulations do not align."
HAZARD COMMUNICATION ACROSS BORDERS This type of gap between law, science, and ethics can be found internationally as well. For example, chrysotile asbestos is handled under an international treaty related to the exportation and associated labeling of hazardous chemicals called the United Nations Rotterdam Convention. The Rotterdam Convention triggers labeling and safety data sheet requirements during export of chemicals that have been banned or severely restricted for health and environmental reasons and are listed in Annex III of the Convention. However, for a chemical or material to be listed in Annex III, parties to the convention must reach consensus. Of the 154 parties to the convention, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe opposed the listing of chrysotile in 2013.
Chrysotile asbestos, which is recognized as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (see http://bit.ly/iarcasbestos), is largely consumed in developing or recently industrialized countries that may not have adequate occupational and environmental health infrastructure. The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) 2012 Minerals Yearbook (available at http://bit.ly/usgsasbestos) identified China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Indonesia as the top five consumers of chrysotile asbestos in 2011. One of the world’s largest chrysotile producers, Canada, had opposed the listing of chrysotile in 2011, but discontinued its opposition after outcry and the shutdown of the remaining Canadian asbestos mines. The EU has banned the manufacture, marketing, and use of all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile, with an extremely narrow exception for diaphragms used in electrolysis (see http://bit.ly/euregulation). Even so, there is still no legal obligation under the international treaty to disclose the recognized health hazards of chrysotile asbestos that may be exported to a developing country. WHAT DO YOU THINK?
These three scenarios pose a variety of ethical questions and issues. Industrial hygienists are uniquely suited to inform business and government regarding the significance of their operations and policy to the health and well-being of workers, the public, and the environment.
The Synergist® invites readers to share their thoughts and views on the following questions. Responses may be published via the new digital Synergist platform, which launches this month. Please e-mail responses to email@example.com. • Are the responsibilities of an industrial hygienist limited to what the law requires? • How do industrial hygienists address a situation where a regulatory occupational exposure limit does not reflect current science? • What role should industrial hygienists play in changing or updating regulation or legislation that is not protective of worker health? • How should occupational health hazards and protective measures be communicated to developing nations engaged in international trade of hazardous substances?