Revisiting Ethics and Confidentiality
Editor’s note: The case studies in this article are fictitious and are intended to highlight ethical issues in the practice of industrial hygiene. Any resemblance to real people or organizations is coincidental. Readers can use the forms below to submit their reactions. Responses may be published in a future issue.
This month, we present two scenarios to test your ethics IQ. Both scenarios place industrial hygienists in a position of having to decide between protecting their employer and protecting employees with potential regulatory consequences.
JEFF THROCKMORTON, CIH, MSPH, FAIHA, is the senior industrial hygienist for Brigham Young University, a member of the Joint Industrial Hygiene Ethics Education Committee, and a past Board member of both AIHA and ABIH. MARK KATCHEN, CIH, FAIHA, is managing principal at Phylmar Group Inc. in Los Angeles, Calif. He is the current chair of the Joint Industrial Hygiene Ethics Education Committee. Send feedback to The Synergist.
Ethical Principles  Consider the following excerpts from the AIHA/ACGIH ethical principles (PDF) when discussing the scenarios presented in this article: I.A.4: Report apparent violations of applicable professional organizations’ ethical standards to appropriate organizations and agencies upon a reasonable and clear factual basis. II.A.4: Maintain and respect the confidentiality of sensitive information obtained in the course of professional or related activities unless: the information pertains to an illegal activity; a court or governmental agency lawfully directs the release of the information; the client/employer expressly authorizes the release of specific information; or, the failure to release such information would likely result in death or serious physical harm to employees and/or the public.  II.C.2: Inform appropriate management representative and/or governmental bodies of violations of legal and regulatory requirements when obligated or otherwise clearly appropriate.
SCENARIO 1: UNION INFLUENCE AND OSHA A large refinery in the midwestern United States is about to start what are anticipated to be contentious contract negotiations with the local operators’ union. One month prior to contract discussions, the union president meticulously went through the facility and subsequently prepared a twenty-page complaint listing many health and safety violations, which he submitted to the local OSHA office. The OSHA area manager found the complaint compelling, assembled two teams of inspectors, and obtained warrants for entry just in case the refinery management did not cooperate. The two teams of OSHA inspectors showed up at the refinery to conduct a "wall-to-wall" inspection based on the union's complaint.  Mary, a CIH and manager of environmental health and safety at the refinery, has been assigned to escort the OSHA inspection teams through the plant. The OSHA teams provided Mary with a copy of the union's complaint. She noted the complaint did not address exposure 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 in the area. Management has been reluctant to install the ventilation system because of cost and suggested that the employees just use respirators “for now.” Should Mary show the OSHA inspection team the top-loading area even though it was not included in the union's complaint? Doing so may result in additional inspections and possibly citations, but it might also increase the likelihood of getting the local exhaust ventilation approved.
For discussion: What ethical issues should Mary consider as she does her analysis? What is Mary’s primary ethical responsibility?
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SCENARIO 2: INTERMITTENT OPERATIONS AND HESITANT MANAGEMENT Things are not all well at Positively Excellent Ltd. (P.E.L.) manufacturing. Employees have suspected for some time that there is borderline excessive exposure to workers performing the precision inspection and adjustment work associated with Line A.  Line A is housed in an older building that wasn’t designed for this work. P.E.L. previously agreed to perform limited upgrades to the building. The recently hired IH, Jack, decides to take some samples and better establish actual exposures. One of the peculiarities of the operation is that Line A, although essential to the company’s survival, only runs intermittently, somewhat seasonally, and generally for partial shifts. Jack’s initial sampling shows that some exposures marginally exceed OSHA’s permissible exposure limit. In addition, ACGIH has just proposed a much lower TLV for the offending chemical than previously existed. Jack learns that part of the upgrade package involves improving the general building ventilation systems and that Line A will receive very limited upgrades. He is also put under some significant pressure from both the division and plant managers to “not do much more” until the upgrades are in place. The division manager praises Jack for handling this situation in a “sensible” manner and protecting the interests of the company.  The chemical in question is slightly irritating to the eyes. While the use of respiratory protection obviously comes to mind, the nature of the work and the requirement of excellent vision for close tolerance work largely precludes full-facepiece respirators. Anticipating improvement and not particularly wanting to engage in a battle, Jack decides not to make an immediate issue about the current situation.  Six months later the upgrades are in place, and Jack re-samples. To his dismay the new system is not adequate to address the problem, and he sees only limited reduction in exposure levels, with occasional excessive exposures still present. Jack presents his findings and concerns to the division and plant managers. He explains that he wanted to see what the new system would do, but that the fixes are inadequate. They reply that the company has no more money to deal with this issue and that the intermittent and limited exposure is not really a problem. They instruct Jack to drop it and take no further samples.  Clearly Jack has been put in an ethical dilemma. He learns later that both the division and plant managers never intended to go further to correct the problem. Indeed, the intermittent and somewhat seasonal use of the chemicals in question has made them believe that a further costly fix is unreasonable.  For discussion: Does Jack refer the matter to OSHA, thereby violating the confidentiality provisions of the code of ethics? Was Jack right to let the issue lie for six months, recognizing that exposures are infrequent and usually low, hoping that the system would be fixed by the building upgrades? Given the apparent lack of safety commitment on the part of upper management, what are Jack’s long-term options?
What do you think about Scenario 2? Send your thoughts to The Synergist.
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JIHEEC: Promoting Ethical Practice The Joint Industrial Hygiene Ethics Education Committee (JIHEEC) promotes awareness and understanding of the enforceable code of ethics published by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene as well as the ethical principles of AIHA and ACGIH. It includes representatives from all three organizations. JIHEEC is not an enforcement group or resolution board. It serves the profession by focusing attention on ethical dilemmas facing the industrial hygienist and can also serve as a sounding board for challenges facing the professional.