Entering the murky "ethics zone"

June 1, 2006
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Today’s headlines are chock-full of stories perceived to be issues of ethical misconduct. Some chief executive officers are seen walking into court handcuffed and charged with leading their businesses into financial distress — and even bankruptcy — while ending up with huge compensation packages. Other CEOs have been forced to resign after reports of inflated resumes or listing bogus degrees and experience.

Universities reveal that students are cheating on testing and reports. Some studies indicate that as many as 80 percent of college students cheat regularly on tests and exams and don’t feel there is anything wrong with this behavior. Students perceive competition so keen, they justify this type of behavior in order to obtain the type of employment they desire upon graduation.

With such a blasé attitude toward ethics, how do we as EHS professionals anticipate, recognize, evaluate and control ourselves when it comes to our own ethical conduct? What prevents us from practicing in specific areas of EHS in which we have little or no expertise? Is there an underlying problem simmering in our ranks?

EHS malpractice?

The medical profession, which has similar characteristics to industrial hygiene, has been wrestling with the ethics dilemma. It is estimated that only 0.5 percent of doctors in the United States are disciplined for misconduct. Yet it is also theorized that up to 10 percent of doctors will show significant gaps in knowledge, skills or performance. Why aren’t these doctors disciplined? It’s probably because doctors are typically expected to monitor and discipline within their own profession.

When comparing medicine and EHS, there are some glaring differences. All doctors and nurses must be licensed to practice in the states in which they perform work. To date there has been very little activity on licensing EHS professionals.

Most violations in medicine are typically placed in the negligence/malpractice box. It is easier to sanction medical professionals in theory because they have a license to practice that could be revoked or suspended by the state licensing board. But remember that most state licensing boards for medicine are made up of people who are typically medical professionals.

Are all medical professionals board certified in the specialty in which they practice? Are all industrial hygienists, safety professionals and environmental professionals board certified to practice? Is malpractice any different in medicine than it is in EHS professions? Now I think we have crossed over into the “Ethics Zone.” EHS pros face the same ethical issues as the rest of the general population. We can’t feel that we are above such ethical dilemmas simply because our goals as professionals are to protect worker and public health and safety. Just as medical professionals should not provide advice or treatment that they are not qualified to administer,

EHS pros should not step beyond their areas of expertise. Perhaps some of these issues could be better addressed if our profession had a standard of state licensing across the United States. Should we work with the state legislatures to establish this type of standard? Would that make for a better group of EHS professionals or just add more costs and bureaucracy to the scene?

Certainly ethical behavior in both the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the American Society of Safety Engineers is given some thought. Each year, when we send in our dues, we must certify that we will abide by a code of ethical behavior. But how many of us have taken the time to read and understand our codes of ethics that prescribe the ways in which we should practice our profession? The six canons of ethics for the industrial hygienist are quite easy to read and understand. They essentially show us how to do the things we should already know how to do.

Problems creep into our professional lives when deadlines, customers, bills, conflicting and competing issues from our bosses, and our own vanities come into play. When all of these things come to bear, we need to remember our codes of ethics and not succumb to the pressures of the profession.

Ethics enforcement

Many times our professional organizations do receive complaints of alleged ethical misconduct. When our professional associations receive complaints, they are reviewed and attempts are made to resolve/mediate the issues. Mediation is the key to resolving complaints within AIHA and ASSE. If issues cannot be resolved, and the member is also certified, then the complaint can be forwarded to either the American Board of Industrial Hygiene or the Board of Certified Safety Professionals.

It is difficult — sometimes close to impossible — for AIHA and ASSE to discipline and/or sanction members because the courts have ruled that anyone who meets the requirements of an open organization can join that organization. The courts have also ruled that when an organization imposes discipline upon an individual, it is sometimes considered a violation of antitrust statutes. It’s difficult to revoke an individual’s membership, since there are low thresholds for attaining membership in these associations.

But ABIH and BCSP do have the ability to sanction their certified members. These organizations award certifications based on certain criteria, and ethics is part of those criteria, where a certification could be removed for serious ethics violations.

Most complaints that come into ABIH/BCSP are resolved through mediation. The boards do have the capability to sanction up to removing someone’s certification. This, of course, is a last resort, and usually will end up in court. With the high cost of litigation, it is always best to try to resolve the complaint between parties before moving to harsher steps.

The boards do try to police the improper and/or illegal use of the CIH and CSP designations. When individuals use these titles under false pretenses, the boards will aggressively seek court remedies to place injunctions against individuals or companies who use the certification improperly. At times, the boards have actually worked in conjunction with law enforcement to remedy the situation.

But these examples are obviously worst-case scenarios of what could happen should unethical professional behavior occur. How do we avoid and prevent unethical behavior? Education can help organization members understand the boundaries within which we should work. Professionals should also consult with each other to assure that they do not conduct their practices unethically. When we see or hear of behavior that borders or exceeds the limits of ethical behavior, we should diplomatically try to work with our colleagues to assist that person(s) to come back to center.

Unethical behavior in the health and safety professions hurts all of us and makes it more difficult to establish and maintain our professional and personal credibility. Do we need to worry about ethical behavior? I think “worry” may be the wrong way to look at it.

We need to be aware of our behaviors and make mid-course corrections when we see behaviors that deviate from our codes of ethics. With the pressures of the fast- paced workplace, and the continuing drive for efficiency and wealth generation, we can sometimes fall victim to unethical behavior. But we do have the ability to keep our professions ethically strong and vibrant. We just all need to be responsible and accountable for our actions and those of our colleagues. We can all do it as long as we understand the issues that drive people to cross the ethical borders.

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