Ethics are a critical aspect of our profession. As industrial hygienists, we are guided by the ethical guidelines published by industrial hygiene professional associations (and, for those certified by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, the enforceable ABIH Code of Ethics).
 
The public maintains certain expectations of what members of our profession represent and how our ethical behavior should relate to the professional services we offer. Industrial hygienists are expected to provide advice based on our knowledge and expertise for the purpose of preventing injury and disease. We gain this knowledge and expertise through a lifelong process of education, work experience, and feedback.
 
We learn ethics through a similar process of interactions with peers, parents, mentors, and even our children regarding social and professional expectations and norms. The author George Head has written that right and wrong can be different for individuals and groups based on profession, life experiences, religious beliefs, and an infinite number of other confounding factors. In professional ethics, there may be multiple rights and multiple wrongs, and we may disagree with one another on how to resolve a particular ethical dilemma.

At the beginning of our career, we learn ethics first by the “right-and-wrong” method, usually through feedback from supervisors and peers. As we become more seasoned professionals, however, we often lack feedback loops for our behaviors. We become the “supervisor,” and we must ponder the ethical nature of some decisions by ourselves.

When I’m unsure about the resolution of an ethical dilemma, I often seek counsel from a mentor. At the beginning of my career, these mentors were older than I was. As my career has progressed and my experience broadened, I often seek ethical counsel from peers and younger professionals. Multiple perspectives help ensure that I have the appropriate information to make a decision. Occasionally, I pose an ethical dilemma to my young daughter. I am almost always surprised by the maturity, thought, and accuracy of her responses.
The author David Clutterbuck has written in detail about corporate ethical mentorship. I propose that we take Clutterbuck’s idea one step further and engage in professional ethical mentorship. Professional ethical mentors are people who help you think through ethical dilemmas. They need to be trustworthy and good listeners. They may help you develop your ability to anticipate, avoid, and resolve ethical dilemmas. Resolution may not be easy, and an ethical mentor can help guide you through potential pitfalls.
Ethical mentors should have deep insight into human behavior and life experience. They should pose insightful questions and help others reflect upon their values, judgments, and actions. They must be capable of processing complex, emotionally charged dilemmas without becoming emotional. They can’t be judgmental. The outcome of ethical mentoring is counsel that improves the ability of the mentee to make sound and reasoned decisions.
As you read the hypothetical case studies below, consider how an ethical mentor might have helped the characters address their ethical dilemmas. THE MISSING ASPERGILLUS SPECIES A 60-year-old individual was diagnosed with Aspergilloma. The individual claimed that the disease was due to exposure to indoor mold in a recreational vehicle. Three industrial hygiene consultants investigated this claim, and each contributed a report and professional opinion. All agreed that the cause of disease was mold from inside the RV.
The first consultant conducted culturable surface sampling that presented sampling data dominated by Penicillium species. Although fungi classified as “other” were identified in the samples, the laboratory did not identify the species. Additional culturable surface samples identified 10 species of fungi, which were dominated (greater than 50 percent) by three species of Penicillium. No species of Aspergillus were identified.
The second consultant took non-culturable surface samples from the RV that were dominated by Cladosporium species and Aspergillus/Penicillium-like fungi. Both the first and second consultants took non-culturable air samples that were dominated by Asp/Pen-like fungi, and no individual species of Aspergillus was identified. The laboratory report clearly stated that there could be no interpretation as to whether the fungi identified in the RV was definitively Aspergillus or Penicillium species because this type of sampling does not differentiate between spores of the two types.
The third consultant, who had a doctorate in toxicology and was a former director of an IH laboratory, based his opinions on the findings of the first two consultants and concluded that the Aspergilloma was caused by mold from within the RV. 
The ethical issue here is that although none of the causative agents of Aspergilloma were identified, these consultants were attributing causation to exposure to an Aspergilloma-causing fungus within an RV. All three consultants either failed to recognize or ignored the fact that they did not find Aspergillus species within the RV, which would be necessary (among other things) to opine that exposure to Aspergillus species caused a disease. Here, the first two consultants did not have much experience and simply may not have known better. But the third consultant was aware of the differences in sampling and analytical techniques and limitations of the different sampling types. Questions to consider: 
  • How might the first two consultants have resolved these ethical lapses? How might their resolution differ from that of the third consultant?
  • Because the first two consultants were inexperienced, is their lapse in judgment less severe than that of the more senior consultant?
  • How could an ethical mentor have helped the inexperienced consultants respond to this dilemma?
THE NOT-SO-DRUNKEN YANKEE Jake was a very tall young man who weighed approximately 340 pounds. One summer, shortly after moving to south Texas, he started working in the oil field. At the end of his first week on site, the foreman reported to the safety supervisor that Jake was drunk. The company had a strict alcohol and drug-use policy, and Jake was taken to the safety supervisor’s trailer and questioned about whether he had been drinking. He acted erratically and did not provide direct answers, so the safety supervisor drove him approximately one hour to the company’s regional headquarters to submit to a drug test.
The drug screen was negative for alcohol and drugs. The safety supervisor then drove Jake back to the job site and sent him home. On Jake’s way home, a fellow motorist reported him as a drunk driver. He was pulled over and became erratic with the officer, who jailed him on suspicion of drunk driving. Two days later, jailers noticed that Jake had become severely lethargic. He was transported to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with and treated for heat stroke. Questions to consider:
  • What ethical lapses did the company make in its treatment of Jake?
  • Was it incumbent upon the safety supervisor and other personnel in the home office to consider other reasons for Jake’s strange behavior?
  • Would there have been an opportunity for an ethical mentor to play a role in this situation?
  • How could the company have acted as an ethical mentor?
  • How can industrial hygienists use this case as an example to mentor young professionals?
THE SELF-REFERENCE A young industrial hygienist named Jill is hoping to take the CIH exam. Her supervisor is very busy and has not yet filled out her reference form despite multiple requests.
Jill approaches her supervisor again, reference form in hand, as the deadline for applications is looming. She asks him to take a moment to complete it so that it can be mailed off by the deadline. He signs the form, hands it back to her, and instructs her to fill in the blank reference information and mail the form.
Jill fills in the reference form and mails it. A few months later, she passes the CIH exam. Questions to consider:
  • What ethical lapses occurred here?
  • Was it inappropriate of the supervisor to require Jill to fill in the reference form?
  • Should the supervisor have reviewed the information contained in the reference before he signed the form?
  • Is Jill’s supervisor someone who should be considered an ethical mentor?
EVERYONE MAKES MISTAKES Everyone occasionally has lapses in ethical judgment. None of us learn ethical behavior by ourselves: we must receive feedback, learn cultural and professional norms, and agree to subscribe to those norms. The important aspect of our behavior, then, is not necessarily that we had a lapse in ethical judgment but that we recognized the lapse and responded to it. We are the proverbial guinea-pigs of our ethical being because we all make mistakes and must resolve them in our own way. Resolving ethical lapses may not be easy, and a multitude of resolutions may exist. In these cases, the counsel of an ethical mentor can prove very helpful. MICHAEL D. LARRAÑAGA, CIH, CSP, PE, PhD, is principal consultant for ENVIRON, a member of the NIOSH Board of Scientific Counselors, and a director of the American Board of Industrial Hygiene. He can be reached at mlarranaga@environcorp.com.
BY MICHAEL D. LARRAÑAGA
Using Others’ Wisdom to Resolve Ethical Dilemmas

The Ethical Mentor

The public maintains certain expectations of what members of our profession represent and how our ethical behavior should relate to the professional services we offer.