ALAN LEIBOWITZ, CIH, CSP, FAIHA, is the president of EHS Systems Solutions LLC, chair of the Joint Industrial Hygiene Ethics Education Committee, past chair of the Board for Global EHS Credentialing, and a past Board member of AIHA.
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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.
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Delivering “bad” news to organizational leadership or professional clients is one of the biggest and most common challenges an OEHS professional can face. In addition to the general anxiety that such a conversation can cause for any employee or consultant, OEHS professionals have the responsibility of protecting the health and safety of others through these discussions. OEHS professionals may be apprehensive about the consequences of delivering analyses that indicate potential violations or existing exposures, fearing a “shoot the messenger” response. While this fear may be justified, it cannot deter accurate communication of information. Where the data indicate a potential for harm, inappropriate delay in communication increases the risk to workers and may expose the OEHS professional to personal liability.
Typical OEHS analyses tend to focus on areas where exposures or noncompliance are most likely. While OEHS reports might mention areas where an organization is compliant, their primary purpose is to identify areas of risk so that appropriate action can be taken. Significant problems rarely get better with age, and there are many examples of relatively simple concerns causing harm when not promptly addressed.
Beyond intentional neglect of responsibility, delay in response or acknowledgement of problems can arise from many sources. Many of those sources are a manifestation of avoidance behaviors, including: •willful blindness, or the “ostrich effect”: choosing to avoid obtaining information that could lead to psychological discomfort •accountability concerns: apprehension about where responsibility will be placed •unwarranted assumptions: believing that you know how information will be received without supporting evidence •cognitive minimization: underestimating or downplaying the consequences of identified risks •local control: efforts to correct a problem without sufficient resources to avoid reporting or asking for assistance from others
Strong organizations welcome the information introspection can uncover, even when it identifies new challenges. Effective management systems must include a process to identify program gaps to facilitate continuous improvement.
OEHS professionals’ first obligation is accurate communication of their analysis of potential risks. Codes of conduct and ethics for the profession generally include this requirement. For example, the Board for Global EHS Credentialing (BGC) Code of Ethics (PDF) requires that professionals “practice with fairness and honesty.” That code also includes the obligation to “deliver competent services with objective and independent professional judgment.”
The requirement to be “objective and independent” is essential to good practice. Facts and data are the currency of the profession. Recommendations or opinions must follow analysis of available information and must not be based on preconceived biases or the desires of clients or employers. While reasonable practitioners can disagree on interpretation of data, they must be able to credibly support their position. This is particularly true when communicating information that is unfavorable to the recipient.
Strong organizations welcome the information introspection can uncover, even when it identifies new challenges.
BETWEEN EXTREMES Over the course of their careers, most OEHS professionals will receive a request to modify a report or other documentation. This sort of request is most frequently based on a legitimate need to correct errors or to provide context for reported information. However, there can be occasions where the intent is to avoid acknowledging concerns. Documenting but not addressing a concern creates possible liability. The answer is not to avoid addressing issues of real potential harm.
Identified risks can generally be sorted in a range from “unlikely to cause injury or occur with any frequency” to “likely to cause real harm on a frequent basis.” The former does not generally require any response, and the latter often requires immediate action. Between those extremes, professional judgment is required to determine what should be documented and acted on. Where real harm is likely, there are few options. In most instances, those risks must be reported and corrective actions taken.
While some OEHS professionals might consider themselves advisors whose only obligation is to inform their clients or management, instances where there is real likelihood of harm suggest the need for additional action. Those actions can include supporting organizations in identifying corrective measures to reduce risk, informing affected individuals or communities, proper reporting to regulatory authorities, and documenting the process. The conversations necessitating those actions can be difficult.
These fundamental actions can reduce potential conflict when delivering unfavorable news:
Prepare your audience. If there is a known potential for negative outcomes, include that possibility in planning discussions.
Be honest and direct. Provide facts and professional analysis without unrelated embellishments. Include a summary of the problem and potential impacts.
Propose a solution. Problems are always better received when potential solutions are also suggested. Practitioners must be competent in the area of concern, or work with someone who is, to develop a recommendation. As the BGC code suggests, OEHS professionals must recognize the limitations of their professional ability and provide services only when qualified.
Reinforce the need for action. The BGC code requires that applicable professionals “communicate clearly, to clients and/or employers, the potential consequences if professional decisions or judgments are overruled or disregarded.”
The following hypothetical scenario presents a potential dilemma where a difficult discussion will be required.
A DIFFICULT POSITION Mika worked as the OEHS team lead for ConnectAll, a leading manufacturer of trailer hitches. Many of ConnectAll’s products required plating for a finished look, and the facility had a large area dedicated to its plating operations. The plating area was installed by former building owners and had been in continuous operation since the 1960s. As part of the investigation of a spill in this area, Mika’s team opened the floor to evaluate some buried transfer piping. While the systems ConnectAll currently used were undamaged, the team observed some historic abandoned pipe that appeared corroded with signs of leakage.
When the team asked Mika what follow-up they should do, she told them to stand down and await further guidance. Mika was concerned that if she conducted further investigations, ConnectAll could become responsible for a problem that was clearly created by a previous owner. She was also concerned about putting the company leadership in a difficult position if she reported the problem to them.
FOR DISCUSSION What should Mika do? Who should she involve in the evaluation process? Consider how the level of Mika’s experience in environmental remediation might affect your answer.

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The Joint Industrial Hygiene Ethics Education Committee (JIHEEC) promotes awareness and understanding of the enforceable code of ethics (PDF) published by the Board for Global EHS Credentialing (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 ethical dilemmas and challenges potentially encountered by industrial hygienists and other OEHS professionals.