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MANAGING BEST PRACTICES: Who's minding the profession?

February 1, 2004
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Can we grow as professionals without consensus, enforced ethics? Let’s look at the stakes. Third-party consultation for the federal government still looms as a great opportunity for environmental safety and health pros. Legislation for addressing indoor mold and other growing public EHS concerns might face fewer roadblocks if regulators and the public feel comfortable that a professional group is ready to address the problems. But the government and the public might remain leery if EHS groups cannot demonstrate a mechanism to help ensure sound ethics among EHS pros.

There are five problems regarding professional EHS ethics:

1) Lack of enforced ethics is the greatest hurdle to EHS becoming a profession. The most distinguishing feature between a profession and an occupation is that a profession has a code of ethics enforced by the professional group. Although most EHS membership groups have established a code of ethics, enforcement is non-existent or minimal.

The American Academy of Industrial Hygiene established a code of ethics in 1968. But there are no enforcement procedures for IH ethics at this time.

Certified Safety Professionals must now agree to abide by a code of ethics when they renew their CSP credential. But the CSP code of ethics emphasizes self-constraint. Note this sentence from the code: “Avoid deceptive acts which falsify or misrepresent their academic or professional qualifications.” Similar Professional Engineers’ ethics language reads: “Engineers shall not falsify or permit misrepresentation of their, or their associates’, academic or professional qualifications.”

The National Society of Professional Engineers’ Board of Ethical Review (BER) goes on to say that a PE “who learns of an (academic) misrepresentation of this nature committed by another engineer cannot stand silent and do nothing.”

Given the ethics inquiry, “Is it unethical for a member to promote himself or herself using a degree from a diploma mill?” the BER says “yes,” while the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP) says “no.”

2) Exactly what acts are unethical in the EHS field? How can we constrain ourselves when it’s not clear what is right or wrong? If differences on EHS ethics exist among various member groups, how do we know which code of ethics to follow?

3) Where do you go to report an unethical act suspected by a colleague? American Industrial Hygiene Association President Tom Grumbles, for instance, acknowledges that some AIHA members are dismayed that AIHA does not have a process to enforce its code of ethics.

4) Budgets and membership priorities hamper ethics enforcement. EHS groups claim that limited resources prevent them from pursuing alleged ethics violations among members. Plus, they claim ethics education and enforcement is a low priority among members.

5) There appears to be minimal self-constraint on the limits of an EHS pro’s areas of competence. Standards and recommendations state that issues surrounding OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits and American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists’ Threshold Limit Values are only to be addressed by persons with industrial hygiene training. But who decides how much and what type of training is ethical or not ethical?

What to do

Established professions such as law, medicine, and engineering do not rely simply on self-constraint in matters of ethics. Lawyers have an obligation to report to appropriate authorities unethical acts committed by other lawyers. The American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics (2003) requires a MD to “report suspected unethical or unprofessional conduct by a colleague to the appropriate peer review body.”

The solution to the ethics problem begins with each EHS pro:

  • Tell leaders of EHS member groups that ethics is important. Have them budget for ethics training and enforcement procedures.

  • Avail yourself of EHS ethics training and ask yourself how you can help other EHS pros act ethically.

  • Inform your employer of the code of ethics that EHS member groups expect you to follow. This action might help reduce or avoid possible ethical conflicts.

  • Since there are no clear procedures for reporting EHS ethics violations among colleagues, decide on a plan before you act, or seek legal counsel before you allege any ethical violation.

  • Try to resolve issues in-house before going public. Whistleblowers are still treated harshly.

    The issue of EHS ethics is complex, involving many “stakeholders.” Consensus-building will take years. In the meantime, there are steps you can take today to help the profession’s credibility and stature.

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