THEA DUNMIRE, JD, CIH, CSP, is the president of ENLAR Compliance Services Inc., where she specializes in helping organizations implement management systems.
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Knowing When to Quit
Editor’s note: The case study 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. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of AIHA, The Synergist, the JIHEEC, or its members.
Please share your thoughts on this article by emailing the Synergist team or submitting them through the form at the bottom of this page. Responses may be printed in a future issue as space permits.
The ethics articles from the Joint IH Ethics Education Committee (JIHEEC) typically present an ethical scenario and ask for your thoughts on a series of questions. This month, we have chosen to share how a scenario in a training course resulted in different opinions by IH professionals.
For several years, a member of the JIHEEC has offered an online ethics course for EHS professionals. An integral part of this course is providing a written analysis of one of several case study scenarios. After reviewing a case study, individuals are asked several questions. This article explores the responses to two of those questions.
From March 2013 until January 2023, 130 individuals completed an analysis of the case study presented below. Although the scenario is based on real situations, the individuals and company in the case study are fictional.
CASE STUDY SCENARIO Tony O’Tell is part of the corporate EHS department for ZZP Company. He is a CIH, a CSP, and a member of AIHA. The company attorney asked Tony to prepare a report summarizing injury and illness statistics for all the ZZP facilities for inclusion in the company’s sustainability report. During his initial review of the OSHA 300 log entries and workers’ compensation records, Tony found some discrepancies that he decides to follow up on. Tony conducts in-person interviews of the occupational health nurses and doctors at five of ZZP’s facilities to dig deeper into the treatment of some of the injuries.
As he is finishing his interview with Joan, the nurse at the ZZP facility in California, she confides, “I think there was another potential work-related injury that was not reported, either on the OSHA 300 log or as a workers’ compensation claim.”
Joan goes on to tell Tony about a knee injury that Bob Jones came to see her about. Bob told her he injured his knee when he tripped and fell down some stairs on the way to his office from the coffee room. Bob works in a desk job in the engineering department.
Joan tells Tony that she asked Bob why he didn’t say something at the time and report it as a work-related injury. She says Bob’s response was, “I didn’t want any trouble.”
When Tony looks puzzled, Joan says, “I know Bob uses medical marijuana.”
Tony now understands.
ZZP has a strict policy against drug use. Anyone reporting an injury is immediately drug tested. Failing a drug test is grounds for immediate dismissal. The policy does allow “legitimate use of a legally-prescribed drug provided it is used as prescribed.”
A common tendency when analyzing ethical dilemmas is to focus on what others should do rather than on your own ethical choices.
ANALYSIS OF RESULTS The online course from which this case study is taken asks participants to respond to several questions. This article discusses the responses to the questions, “What action should Tony take now?” and “How could Tony avoid a similar ethical issue in the future?”
What action should Tony take now?
Course participants chose among four potential answers to this question and could provide additional comments. The results were as follows:
• do nothing—this issue is outside of Tony’s current assigned task: 8 percent • talk to Bob and confirm whether his injury was work related: 88 percent • report Joan for a breach of company policy: 23 percent • require that Bob be immediately drug tested: 10 percent
Most of those who completed the case study (100 out of 130) provided additional comments to this question. Some of their comments, lightly edited for clarity, include:
“Tony needs to get to the bottom of this with Bob. I am not sure ‘reporting’ Joan is helpful because she was conflicted about what to do, but I do think it is worth having a discussion with Joan and her supervisor about what to do in the future when presented with this kind of situation, including engaging Tony for assistance.”
“Remind Joan to keep confidential information confidential. Also, encourage her to aggressively follow up on injuries that occur on site so injury reporting is accurate and employees receive the care they deserve.”
“I would speak to my immediate boss to let him/her know the facts and suggest that nothing be done. Will Bob be drug tested as part of company policy? If so, wait for results. If there is no regular drug testing, management may want to implement one. Bob should not be singled out for a drug test.”
“The last thing Tony should consider is to do nothing. Clearly this is a violation of the rules, and even though there could be those who are negatively impacted, they must still abide by the rules of the company, the federal government, and the state government for that matter. You cannot set a precedent in this type of situation. Everyone who needs to know needs to be aware of the situation that took place. Tony simply cannot do nothing.”
How could Tony avoid a similar ethical issue in the future?
In answer to this question, 87 percent of respondents said that Tony could avoid a similar issue. Some of their suggestions, which have been lightly edited, include:
“Reeducate company employees on drug policy, with emphasis on the section regarding legally prescribed drug use. Reexamine company drug policy.”
“Tony should make sure that the medical personnel have the proper training to recognize the importance of reporting workplace injuries. Employee training is necessary for employees to also recognize the importance of reporting their work-related injuries since this is a necessary way to recognize and eliminate workplace hazards.”
“Regardless of whether Bob was actually using marijuana, Tony is now aware of the conflict in policies and how it may deter employees from reporting events that need to be investigated (with treatment provided for injuries if applicable) to help prevent future injuries to employees.”
“The organization as a whole should be informed (masking individual names and locations) of the details of this incident, its outcomes, and procedural/behavioral expectations.”
“Do what is asked. Don't go on fishing expeditions. Avoid talking/hearing about employee health conditions.”
“Ask permission before he once again investigates something for which he is really not prepared.”
COMMENTARY A common tendency when analyzing ethical dilemmas is to focus on what others should do rather than on your own ethical choices. Many of the answers provided in the analysis of this case study reflect this tendency: they focus on what the company, another employee, or the nurse needs to do rather than what the EHS professional (you) should do.
This case study involves other professions, auditing and nursing, that have their own code of ethics. This is an important consideration when you are wearing multiple professional hats. The code of ethics for internal auditors can provide guidance for this situation.
An ethics issue became more likely when Tony made the initial decision to “keep digging” without going back to his audit client, the company attorney, for additional direction. Part of the standards for the professional practice of auditing is ensuring that the objectives and scope of an audit are established by the audit customer, in this case the attorney, and clearly communicated to the auditee, in this case Joan (unless the audit is intended to be conducted without advance notice). By proceeding to investigate beyond the initial direction, Tony increased the chances that he would face an ethical dilemma. An informal audit scope—“see what you find”—is inappropriate for most EHS audits and especially for this type of audit where there are both legal constraints and ethical concerns associated with privacy.
One of the keys to avoiding ethical dilemmas is knowing when to stop.
In her book, Quit, Annie Duke suggests writing down criteria for ending a project before you start. She describes this as a pre-commitment contract to help you act more rationally. What is important for avoiding legal and ethical issues in many audit situations is having a clear written scope and criteria for stopping. Tony had neither.
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