is manager, corporate industrial hygiene services at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City, Utah. He can be reached at
Most industrial hygienists would agree that they should obey laws and regulations as reflected in the American Board of Industrial Hygiene’s Code of Ethics, which states that industrial hygienists should comply with laws, regulations, policies, and ethical standards governing the professional practice of industrial hygiene and related activities. But in some cases, what is legal may not be ethical. Lying to a colleague, for example, is not considered ethical, but it’s generally legal. LAW MEETS ETHICS Law and professional ethics collide in certain situations, and this issue is not unique to the industrial hygiene profession. Recently, a series of reportedly botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona have raised ethical concerns for the medical profession related to lethal injection, as injection in general is a procedure commonly associated with medicine and the medical setting. These executions have called into question whether lethal injection is a “humane” method of execution. To address these concerns, some are proposing that execution teams include licensed, practicing physicians, which poses an ethical dilemma for medical professionals, who are dedicated to the preservation of life. Pharmacists are drawn into the mix as well, since state regulation generally requires a prescription before a drug can be dispensed.
While it is not illegal for a physician to participate in lethal injection, the Code of Medical Ethics of the American Medical Association (AMA) specifically indicates that physicians should not participate in legally authorized executions. This creates a sticky situation for medical professionals. 
Fortunately, industrial hygienists don’t have to face quite the same dilemma that physicians, nurses, and pharmacists are being forced to consider in this scenario. But industrial hygienists are certainly familiar with situations in which ethical obligations go beyond legal duties. WHEN SCIENCE AND REGULATION DON’T ALIGN Industrial hygienists committed to protecting worker health routinely face issues where science, professional ethics, and laws and regulations do not align. Take hearing conservation, for example. It is widely accepted that the OSHA permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 90 dBA with a 5 dB exchange rate is not adequately protective. Most other nations, including China, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense, ACGIH, and NIOSH, recognize a protective exposure limit of 85 dBA with a 3 dB exchange rate. While it is “legal” to rely only on the OSHA PEL, is it the right thing for workers if the employer is simply in compliance with the law? In this case, our ethical obligations as industrial hygienists exceed legal duties and minimum compliance standards. 
What should we do in situations where the law isn’t adequate to protect workers’ health? Here, the industrial hygiene profession can learn something from the AMA’s Code of Ethics, which indicates that physicians should work to change the law when they believe a law is unjust. Just as in the medical profession, it’s important for industrial hygienists to pursue changes to law where necessary to ensure that regulations better reflect the current science, our profession, and our professional ethics and duty to protect worker health. But that path is not always easy. For example, most industrial hygienists are well aware that the socio-political rulemaking process for OSHA PELs is lengthy and onerous, but it is imperative that the profession continue pursuing the PEL update process to ensure that laws are adequately protective.
It's Legal, But Is It Ethical?
When Ethical Obligations Surpass Legal Duties