Editor’s note: The scenario described in this article is fictitious and is intended to highlight ethical issues in the practice of industrial hygiene. Any resemblance to real people or organizations is coincidental.
Responses to “Ethics of Analysis”
The article “Ethics of Analysis” in the January 2021 issue presents a fictional case study about the ethical issues related to use of IH data and other information. A summary of the article appears below, followed by responses from Synergist readers.
“ETHICS OF ANALYSIS” SUMMARY A relatively new CIH named Ike, 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 after the project was completed, 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, to this date, 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? What guidance can you draw from the code of ethics (PDF) to assist your evaluation of Ike’s decision?
“The only way to prevent mistakes from being repeated is to acknowledge them and understand their cause.”
READER RESPONSES One problem in being on the loss-control side of the business ledger is that our value to the organization in preventing errors can conflict with the highly incentivized goals of getting work done on time and within budget that motivate our coworkers. Spectacular examples of bias against being socially inappropriate include the rocket scientists who did not object to the Challenger launch, Volkswagen engineers who did not object to installing defeat devices, and Boeing test pilots who did not insist on the need to retrain 737 MAX pilots.
While Ike’s dilemma is not nearly as spectacular, he is in the position of having the special expertise the organization is depending on to prevent a costly mistake. It is his job to raise this issue to the organization’s decisionmakers. No one else will. The Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO) promotes a concept called “maintaining a questioning attitude” that aims to overcome this bias. Experts need to maintain rigorous processes for examining their assumptions. INPO encourages member organizations to adopt policies for declaring “unresolved safety questions” that trigger formal investigations to resolve problems, similar to accident and incident investigations.
The only way to prevent mistakes from being repeated is to acknowledge them and understand their cause. If Ike chooses to avoid conflict and work the problem himself, he will have lost an opportunity to improve the organization’s health protection program.
Paul Wambach
The BGC Code of ethics is not particularly helpful in providing guidance in this case. It does require the CIH to maintain high standards of integrity and professional conduct. It also requires compliance with “laws, regulations, policies and ethical standards governing professional practice.” Additional clarification would be helpful.
Not knowing specifics, it is difficult to argue that communicating the new information to workers is a regulatory requirement. Also, regulations represent the minimum standard. So even if the standards do not require employee hazard communication in this case, the employees should be informed. Ike needs to think in terms of doing the right thing. His concern appears to be that the employees will not react well to the new information, and he does not want to admit that a mistake happened. But what will happen to the company’s and Ike’s credibility when the employees learn the new information was withheld? He should report the new information to management and the employees. Ike needs to prepare a compelling argument for reporting if management wants only to monitor the situation. The fact that this situation involves a statistically low probability of harm is not relevant.
A digital Synergist reader
Ike has to inform employees and management of the latest findings and revisit the previous action. Management will determine whether they need to do anything about these new findings.
A digital Synergist reader
Ike has an obligation to inform employees and management of this new information. He should incorporate appropriate risk communication into the conversation regarding the potential for any employee exposure. He should research the toxicological effects of the sensitizing material and reach out to medical resources to identify applicable surveillance methods to evaluate employee exposure. He should also make recommendations for moving forward with respect to the adequacy of the existing controls (recoating the area with the non-toxic materials) and additional air sampling plans for activities that may produce airborne exposure of the potential sensitizing material.
Scott D. Norman
Codes and Principles
Ethical codes and principles, like those formulated by member organizations including AIHA and ACGIH, as well as the Board for Global EHS Credentialing (BGC), commonly require that health and safety information be accurately communicated to the best of the professional’s knowledge. The BGC Code of Ethics (PDF) requires that credentialed professionals “maintain and respect the confidentiality of sensitive information obtained in the course of professional activities unless: the information is reasonably understood to pertain to unlawful activity; a court or governmental agency lawfully directs the release of the information; the client or the 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.”
JIHEEC: Promoting Ethical Practice The Joint Industrial Hygiene Ethics Education Committee (JIHEEC) promotes awareness and understanding of the enforceable code of ethics published by BGC as well as the ethical principles of AIHA and ACGIH. JIHEEC includes representatives from all three organizations.
JIHEEC is not an enforcement body or resolution board. It serves the profession by bringing attention to and expressing opinions on ethical dilemmas and challenges encountered by industrial hygienists and OEHS professionals.