ROB AGNEW, MS, CIH, CSP, REM, is an assistant professor in the Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology Program at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla. He can be reached at (405) 744-8772 or MARK KATCHEN, CIH, FAIHA, is managing principal at Phylmar Group Inc. in Los Angeles, Calif. He can be reached at (310) 474-3937 or JOSEPH ALI is a research scholar at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He can be reached at (410) 614-5370 or
From Principles to Practice A Framework for International Industrial Hygiene Ethics
Authors’ note: the eight-step framework discussed in this article was developed by Nancy Kass, Holly Taylor, and Joseph Ali of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, together with Anant Bhan, a researcher at Yenepoya University in Pune, India. Our next column will present another example in international IH ethics.

Here’s the situation: a U.S.-based company is producing vane-axial dingle arms in three countries—the U.K., Germany, and the U.S. The production process involves spray application of methylene chloride (Dichloromethane), and each country has a different exposure limit. Which limit, or limits, should the company adhere to in its facilities?

This hypothetical dilemma illustrates some of the ethical complexities of practicing industrial hygiene in an international setting. In this article, we offer an eight-step framework for ethical decision making in situations that transcend boundaries, cross cultures, and place ethical principles in tension with each other. GOALS ROOTED IN PRINCIPLES Effective industrial hygiene practice must consider professional standards (for example, the ABIH Code of Ethics), cultural norms, legal and regulatory requirements, and human rights. However, an international practice often compels consideration of universal ethical principles, including:
  • non-maleficence — avoiding harmful acts; minimizing unavoidable harms
  • beneficence—maximizing potential benefits
  • respect for individuals and communities—respecting local decision-making processes and legal frameworks; privacy/confidentiality
  • justice—treating equals equally; supporting reduction of pre-existing injustices
Our fundamental goals should be rooted in these principles, while our more immediate goals focus on mitigating conditions that place stakeholders at risk (through improving use of personal protective equipment, for example). Industrial hygienists must also focus on program goals such as accurately documenting exposure monitoring data (for more information, see Nancy Kass’ paper “An Ethics Framework for Public Health").
The challenge for industrial hygiene professionals is determining whether a course of action will be effective in the given international setting. It’s often difficult to ensure that all parties share a mutual understanding and acceptance of principles, goals, and practices. In addition, we must address differences between individuals, cultures, institutions, and regulations, and we must consider whether an action risks further stigmatizing an already stigmatized work force. However we decide to proceed, our proposed course of action might need to be “locally adapted” in a way that maintains our ethical standards.
The majority opinion in Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO, v. American Petroleum Institute et. al. read:
"If ... the odds are one in a billion that a person will die from cancer by taking a drink of chlorinated water, the risk clearly could not be considered significant. On the other hand, if the odds are one in a thousand that regular inhalation of gasoline vapors that are 2% benzene will be fatal, a reasonable person might well consider the risk significant."
An article in the AIHA 75th Anniversary supplement to the September 2014 Synergist that discusses the one-in-a-thousand risk benchmark for OSHA's Permissible Exposure Limits is available in the Synergist archives on the AIHA website (login required).