LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
ANDREW F. OBERTA has over thirty years’ experience in asbestos consulting, is the author of the ASTM Manual on Asbestos Control, and is an AIHA Fellow.
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Nick Rice concludes his excellent article "It's Legal, But Is It Ethical?" in the October Synergist with the following four questions, to which I offer my responses: Are the responsibilities of an industrial hygienist limited to what the law requires? Speaking strictly of ethical, and not legal, responsibilities, the short answer is “No.” However, “what the law requires” is not always easily defined. How do industrial hygienists address a situation where a regulatory occupational exposure limit does not reflect current science? The problem cannot be defined simply in terms of an OEL. There are substances for which no OEL exists and hazards not subject to an OEL. The obstacle to protecting the worker may be inadequate regulatory provisions such as PPE requirements. Finally, our efforts as industrial hygienists are not limited to worker protection but also apply to non-occupational and environmental exposures. The recent Ebola crisis offers an example. There is no quantitative OEL for Ebola viruses, and potential exposure is not limited to healthcare facilities. The CDC has interstate enforcement authority over isolation and quarantine but cannot otherwise enforce their guidelines for worker and community protection. Authority for worker protection lies with OSHA at the federal level with the personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard communication, and bloodborne pathogens standards. Enforcement responsibility for the most part lies with the state health agencies, leaving an industrial hygienist with a vaguely defined regulatory landscape to navigate that does not necessarily reflect the “current science” regarding Ebola. The CDC protocol for PPE illustrates the problem by its reliance on the N95 respirator. A respirator rated as N95 removes 95 percent of the test aerosol, but its effectiveness against airborne Ebola virus is open to question. Consider that OSHA specifically prohibits the use of filtering facepieces (a.k.a. dust masks) for asbestos work. Being told that these devices don’t protect me against asbestos fibers, how could I advise someone that they provide an adequate defense against a deadly airborne virus? What role should industrial hygienists play in changing or updating regulation or legislation that is not protective of worker health? Opportunities for industrial hygienists to directly influence regulations as individuals are essentially limited to comments on proposed regulations. A more effective mechanism is through AIHA and other professional organizations, in whose efforts industrial hygienists should participate. The problem is not limited to the text of the regulations but involves their interpretation by enforcement agencies. This is an area where industrial hygienists can play a more direct role through communication with representatives of the agencies. How should occupational health hazards and protective measures be communicated to developing nations engaged in international trade of hazardous substances? One effective process is the Rotterdam Convention that Mr. Rice discusses. His example, however, illustrates the barrier to applying this process to international trade in asbestos fiber that will not go away as long as there are willing suppliers and consumers . I have attended conferences of asbestos victims and their support groups in the U.S. and abroad for the past fifteen years, and these are good forums to inform attendees about preventive measures. Unfortunately, those who attend are not in positions to enforce the precautions in workplaces. Industrial hygienists can assist by providing the tools for education and outreach to their international colleagues. This discussion brings up an ethical question that involves companies in the supply chain of hazardous products. Companies that provide cement to be mixed with asbestos fiber may be doing so legally, but it is not ethical to do so. If one provides a nonhazardous component of a hazardous product, knowing that the product—in this case, asbestos-cement—causes disease throughout its cycle of manufacturing, use and disposal, the supplier of the nonhazardous component shares moral responsibility for the consequences. What is the ethical responsibility of an industrial hygienist involved in the supply chain of asbestos-cement materials or other hazardous products?
Ethics and the Law BY ANDREW F. OBERTA
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