Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety (OEHS) professionals have complex and sometimes conflicting responsibilities by serving as expert, decision- maker, risk and business case analysis communicator, advisor, and leader (Iavicoli, Valenti, Gagliardi, & Rantanen, 2018). These responsibilities become more complex considering the variety of stakeholders to include workers, union representatives, management/employers, health care providers, professional associations, and the public. Ethical decision- making has become more challenging in recent years with changing organizational models focusing on use of OEHS generalists rather than specialists, extended work hours, teleworking options, and use of contractors and temporary staff. Advances in data collection and analysis such as use of big data systems and wearable measurement technology has advanced both an OEHS professional’s ability to conduct exposure assessment and improved worker’s knowledge of their own exposures. However, these advances present ethical dilemmas concerning respect for confidentiality, consent, workers’ right to know, autonomy of workers’ decisions, data ownership, and data accuracy (Westerholm, 2007). The purpose of this article is to describe common ethical philosophies, ABIH and BCSP code of ethics, and example case studies involving OEHS dilemmas.
Ethical decision-making for OEHS professionals may be rooted in a variety of ethical philosophies. These philosophies may include: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue-based ethics.
In the most extreme case, consequentialism has been linked to just saying “the ends justify the means” (Wachter, 2014). If a goal is morally important enough then any method of achieving the goal is acceptable. OEHS professionals using a consequentialism ethical philosophy are interested in determining the consequences and impact of their action or inaction, possible alternative actions and associated consequences, and identifying how to measure harm against benefits of intended actions. Consequentialism attempts to ensure the greatest good for all stakeholders; however, this philosophy can be challenging because separation between professional and personal beliefs/ideals is required. An example of this conflict includes CDC recommended use of cloth face coverings to reduce the spread of COVID-19 (CDC, 2020a). Since this recommendation was made, many municipalities have required their use. The purpose of face coverings in affecting the population at large rather than the user which conflicts with traditional respiratory protection which has the primary intent of protecting the user. This situation is further compounded with the recent wild-fires in California and Oregon that are leading to poor outdoor and indoor air quality. The CDC has recommended wearing a fit-tested, NIOSH-approved N95 or P100 respirator for individuals who must spend time outdoors and has indicated non-N-95 face coverings offer little protection against wild-fire smoke air pollutants (CDC, 2020b). In these cases, an OEHS professional would need to balance the precautionary principle, where uncontrolled exposure should be limited with the potential that cloth face coverings could be inappropriately used to control occupational exposures to hazardous materials or environmental pollutants rather than using more appropriate elastomeric or N-95 NIOSH-approved respirators.
While ethical decision making can be highly subjective, quantitative approaches may be used to improve objectivity as much as possible when selecting between alternatives. The OEHS professional could numerically rate the anticipated consequences of factors such as: level of risk, number of hazards eliminated from the workplace, degree of regulatory compliance, and number of workers impacted, among others (Wachter, 2014). Assigning a numerical value ranging from least good to most good could help prioritize the alternatives. However, frequent re-evaluation of decision tools is needed when evaluating ethical alternatives during a rapidly evolving pandemic such as COVID-19.
While consequentialism focuses on good or bad consequences, deontological ethics focuses on the right or wrong of actions. OEHS professionals using a deontological ethical philosophy focus on determining which rules and regulations need to be followed, which choices are morally required, permitted, or forbidden. This may include use of professional society code of ethics. Adopting a solely legalistic approach to safety and health management may not be the most ethical management approach. After the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 in the U.S., the prominent approach to safety and health management involved attaining regulatory or legal compliance. However, a major problem with adopting this regulatory approach is many hazards and risks are not covered or controlled adequately through existing regulations. Selection of Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) when assessing exposure to chemical and physical stressors in the workplace is an example. Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) in OSHA’s 1910.1000 Z tables and expanded standards for chemicals such as hexavalent chromium, lead, and benzene among others are, in some cases, less restrictive than Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) promulgated by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. Selecting the most conservative OEL may be most protective of the worker but may not be technically or economically feasible to attain by employers. The perceived importance of regulations was also demonstrated with a recent petition filed by the AFL-CIO in the U.S. Court of Appeals to compel OSHA to develop an emergency temporary standard to protect workers against COVID-19 exposure in the work-place (AFL-CIO, 2020). However, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rejected the petition by deferring to OSHA’s expertise and existing tools for return to work instead of requiring development of a compulsory standard (Meyerstein, 2020). Since the rejection of AFL-CIO’s petition, the state of Virginia approved an emergency temporary standard to protect workers against COVID-19 in the workplace. (Bailey, Powell, & Elliott, 2020)
The virtue- based ethical philosophy involves a more holistic approach for an OEHS professional. Rather than focusing on consequences or actions associated with consequentialism and deontology ethics, virtue ethics involves self-reflection. An OEHS practitioner emphasizing virtue may involve assessing professional reputation, assessing actions that will cultivate desired virtues, and determining what actions will result in becoming the, subjectively and internally determined, best possible OEHS practitioner. While consequentialism and deontology ethics may be linked to rules, regulations, and professional society codes, virtue ethics examines moral character with the ultimate goal of developing character traits, practical wisdom, benevolence, justice, and loyalty (Wachter, 2014).
American Board of Industrial Hygiene Code of Ethics
The American Board of Industrial Hygiene® (ABIH®) recognizes a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) is an individual who has met minimum requirements for education and experience. CIHs will demonstrate through examination a minimum level of knowledge and skills in a variety of subject areas. ABIH® has promulgated a code of ethics that applies to both individuals seeking certification and certificants designed to serve as minimum ethical standards for professional behavior. Applicants and certificants have an obligation to (ABIH®, 2007):
- Maintain high standards of integrity/professional conduct
- Accept responsibility for actions
- Continually enhance capabilities
- Practice with fairness and honesty
- Encourage others to act professionally
The code of ethics consists of 2 broad categories, 4 subcategories, and 19 total elements that may be linked to (a) responsibilities to ABIH®, the profession, and the public and (b) responsibilities to clients, employers, and the public. Paraphrased responsibilities to ABIH®, the profession, and the public regarding compliance with organizational rules, policies, and legal requirements includes (ABIH®, 2007):
- Comply with laws, regulations, policies governing Industrial Hygiene (IH) practice
- Provide accurate and truthful representation of certification
- Maintain security of ABIH® testing information
- Cooperate with ABIH® on ethics matters
- Report ethics code violations by certificants and candidates
- Refrain from public behavior in violation of ethical standards
The main theme of these elements includes truthful representation of certification, a need to monitor the IH profession for ethics violations, and positively representing the profession rather than just the individual.
Paraphrased responsibilities to clients, employers, and the public regarding education, experience, competency, and performance of professional services includes (ABIH®, 2007):
- Deliver competent services using objective/professional judgment
- Recognize limitations of professional ability
- Provide referrals when unable to provide assistance
- Maintain confidentiality of sensitive information
- Accurately represent education, experience, competency
- Provide accurate estimates of costs, services, results
- Recognize intellectual property
- ABIH® seal/stamp/signature control of certificant
Paraphrased responsibilities to clients, employers, and the public regarding conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety includes (ABIH®, 2007):
- Disclose potential conflicts of interest
- Avoid conduct that could cause a conflict of interest
- Prevent conflicts from interfering with judgment
- Avoid offering/accepting compensation to secure work
Paraphrased responsibilities to clients, employers, and the public regarding public health and safety includes (ABIH®, 2007):
- Follow health and safety procedures when performing professional duties
Board of Certified Safety Professionals Code of Ethics
Similar to ABIH® for the CIH credential, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP) offers the Certified Safety Professional® (CSP®) credential, among others, for individuals meeting minimum education, safety experience, and demonstration of knowledge and skills in a variety of safety related subject areas. BCSP indicates certificants in their professional activities will advance the integrity, honor, and prestige of the profession by adherence to the following paraphrased code of ethics (BCSP, 2020):
- “HOLD Paramount…”: Protect against danger and unacceptable risks
- “BE Honest….”: Act honestly, fairly, and impartially
- “ISSUE Public Statements…”: Avoid conduct/practice that discredits the profession or deceives the public. Make objective statements based on facts and competence of subject matter
- “UNDERTAKE Assignments….”: Take on assignments within the scope of education and experience. Continue professional development through education, experience, training
- “AVOID Deceptive Acts….”: Avoid misrepresenting academic and professional qualifications to include the purpose of soliciting employment
- “CONDUCT Professional Relations…”: Avoid compromise of professional judgment by conflicts of interest. Report issues of misconduct to BCSP.
- “ACT in a Manner…”: Do not discriminate based on religion, ethnicity, gender, etc.
- “SEEK Opportunities…”: Seek to advance health and safety by sharing knowledge and skills
The following OEHS-related case studies as discussed in Wachter (2014) describe a work-place situation, identify potential ethical dilemmas, and describe potential mitigation strategies.
How Friendly Is Too Friendly?
Workplace Situation: Joe is a junior safety professional at a manufacturing facility and is responsible for conducting risk assessments for new and modified manufacturing activities.
Kevin is Joe’s closest childhood friend and works at the same facility as a lead project engineer responsible for updating existing and creating new manufacturing processes. Each new and modified project is required to be reviewed by a safety professional before implementation and Kevin consistently requests Joe by name to review his (Kevin’s) projects. Joe initially believed Kevin’s by name requests were based on an easy working relationship and respect for Joe’s knowledge, skills, and abilities but Joe is beginning to suspect Kevin’s motivation is to take advantage of the situation for quicker and more lenient risk reviews. Kevin has asked Joe to “ease up” on all the safety recommendations since they were driving project costs over budget. Kevin has also requested Joe prioritize Kevin’s projects ahead of all other tasks since they are friends. Kevin is popular and is considered a rising talent in the company due to consistently finishing projects ahead of schedule and under budget. Joe has been less successful with his safety career and as such, Joe feels he could benefit from his relationship with Kevin.
Potential Ethical Dilemmas: Is it a conflict of interest having best friends working together for safety reviews? Should loyalty to the safety profession or loyalty to friendship take precedence? What is the potential impact of compromised risk assessments on worker safety and health at the facility? If Joe is providing lenient safety reviews, are the additional benefits acting in a discriminatory nature against all other project engineers not receiving lenient safety hazard control recommendations? Using a deontological ethical philosophy, the likely conclusion is Joe is violating professional codes of ethics for both BCSP and ABIH® by not protecting the health and safety of workers and by not acting with integrity.
Potential Mitigation Strategies: Joe considers discussing the issue directly with Kevin; however, this may lead to a soured relationship. Discussing with a supervisor may sour the friendship and brand Joe as a non-team player thus worsening Joe’s reputation in the company. Joe may request the supervisor to revise the department’s policies on how projects are distributed to safety professionals to broaden learning experiences.
The Pencil Whipping IH Technician
Workplace Situation: Gary the IH technician conducts all sampling for an IH department to include air sampling, noise measurements, and ventilation surveys. During the last 3 months, Kaila the department head, has begun noticing problems including: discrepancies with pre/post calibration, incomplete sampling narratives, deviation from sampling protocols, and errors in sample media selection. Additionally, sample progress has slowed to less than the department policy of 16 samples per month (or 85% of the master exposure monitoring plan per year). Kaila conducts refresher training to address the inaccuracies and work volume reduction. During a day of air sampling for hexavalent chromium, Gary noticed the air sampling pump post calibration was 50% less than the flow rate set during pre-calibration. Department policy for maximum allowed flow rate change is 5%.
Potential Ethical Dilemmas: If Gary rejects the samples then this will further demonstrate reduced production and potentially result in further admonishment from Kaila. If Gary reports the average of the pre and post air sampling pump calibration when calculating the sample volume, the sample concentration will change. Erroneously low flow rates will result in erroneously high sample concentrations which may result in unnecessary expenditure of funds for ventilation or respiratory protection controls. Erroneously high flow rates will result in erroneously low sample concentrations which may lead to excessive personal exposures without suitable health hazard controls being considered. Using a deontological ethical philosophy, several ABIH® ethical code elements were violated. The element of complying with policies governing professional IH practice was violated with the consideration of accepting samples with a substantial change in flow rate. The element of delivering competent services with objective and independent professional judgment in decision making was violated if the facts are hidden based on a fear of punishment.
Potential Mitigation Strategies: Gary could develop a full plan of action before discussing the situation with Kaila to include sample pump trouble shooting and reviewing sampling protocol to improve technique. The plan of action along with preventative actions for the future may be presented to Kaila in hopes of forgiving the monthly sample quota and further negative counseling.
To Recommend or Not Recommend
Workplace Situation: Neil recently reported to the IH department and is the most junior of four other senior IHs all having at least 8 years of IH experience at the company. All senior IHs offered incredible levels of assistance and mentorship to Neil when initially beginning employment with the company. All IHs engage with one another well both personally and professionally except Sarah who is a constant distraction in the department. She is often late for work, has a poor understanding of basic IH principles, demonstrates a poor attitude, allows emotion to affect her IH decision making, and her IH reports often require significant re-writes to overcome lack of overall IH competency. As soon as the requisite experience time is achieved, Neil applies for, takes, and passes the CIH exam after taking the exam for the first time. Now Neil is the only CIH in the department. Sarah asks Neil to submit a professional reference to ABIH® on her behalf since she intends on sitting for the CIH exam at the next opportunity. In addition to providing a description of work responsibilities, the questionnaire asks “Does the Applicant conduct industrial hygiene activities in a manner consistent with the Code of Ethics” (ABIH®, 2019).
Potential Ethical Dilemmas: Neil does not believe Sarah would be a good CIH and does not think he should write a recommendation based on his first- hand witnessing of ABIH® code of ethics violations. However, Sarah was helpful to Neil when new to the company. Also, outside of work, Sarah and Neil get along well personally so refusing to provide a recommendation to ABIH® seems like a sign of disloyalty. Is Neil’s professional judgment being clouded due to the feeling of obligation to support a fellow IH’s pursuit of continued professional development? Neil’s first actions after becoming certified would be dishonest when answering the question “Do you know of any reason why this Applicant should not be considered for certification? Yes/No” (ABIH®, 2019). If answered with No, and by submitting a recommendation, one of Neil’s first actions after becoming certified would demonstrate dishonesty. If other IHs in the company find out that Neil recommended unqualified Sarah, then his credibility and professional reputation would be damaged, and he would be known for providing recommendations without properly scrutinizing the IH’s character in the profession. Neil also considers that Sarah’s recent motivation to seek certification may be just the spark needed to study and improve her IH skills. Using a consequentialism ethical philosophy, what would be the consequences of submitting a recommendation on behalf of Sarah? Would the IH profession as a whole suffer? What if motivation to pursue becoming a CIH results in reinvigorating Sarah to become an improved professional? Using a deontological philosophy, violations of ABIH’s codes of ethics and overall IH incompetency would be enough to avoid submitting a CIH reference.
Potential Mitigation Strategy: Neil considers making the CIH recommendation because he is not interested in directly confronting Sarah about his concerns considering her numerous emotional and irrational outbursts and due to a desire for self-preservation and avoiding confrontation. Neil could be honest with Sarah regarding his concerns for her character. The best option for Neil may be to just complete the reference but be honest and explain why the applicant should not be considered for certification.
OEHS professionals may be presented with a variety of ethical dilemmas when accomplishing their duties. During this discussion, consequentialism, deontological, and virtue based ethical philosophies were explored. Additionally, ABIH® and BCSP code of ethics were discussed and case studies were provided to assist practitioners in identifying and resolving ethical challenges. Resolving ethical challenges may be accomplished with a decision-making model that involves (Ouimet et al., 2011):
- Gathering facts with context
- Determining who will be impacted by the decision
- Referring to codes of ethics/laws
- Clarifying personal/professional values
- Identifying courses of action by those affected by a decision
- Evaluating alternative courses of action
- Making a decision
AFL-CIO (2020, May 18). AFL-CIO sues OSHA for emergency temporary standard to protect workers. Retrieved Jun 16, 2020, from https://aflcio.org/press/releases/afl-cio-sues-osha-emergency-temporary-standard-protect-workers.
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Author: N. Cody Schaal, Ph.D., CIH, CSP1, 2
- Naval Medical Research Unit Dayton
- Columbia Southern University
The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, nor the U.S. Government.
I am an employee of the U.S. Government. This work was prepared as part of my official duties. Title 17, USC, §105 provides that ‘Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the U.S. Government.’ Title 17, USC, §101 defines a U.S. Government work as a work prepared by a military service member or employee of the U.S. Government as part of that person’s official duties.
Source of Support
This work did not require funding/support.
Areas: OSH / Environmental Management