There are unethical people in the safety and health field and their actions will impact you. This is the message I recently presented to a group of students in the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) chapter at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

To demonstrate my point I had one of the students read an advertisement in that day's USA Today newspaper. An ad in the paper stated that a bachelor's degree could be bought for $178. I went on to explain that there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of bogus degrees and certifications in the safety and health field. IUP students would spend four years of their life and many thousands of dollars to earn a safety and health education, and then compete for jobs with unethical people who falsify or embellish their credentials.

I didn't see any alarm among the students. Their passive faces indicated a 'live and let-live' attitude. This lack of emotion is not, unfortunately, surprising. According to professor Robert Simon at Hamilton College, 10 to 20 percent of college students are reluctant to make moral judgments, even in the most horrific of cases.

We can forgive college students for being naive about unethical conduct in the working world. After all, most students have lived rather sheltered and protected lives. What bothers me most, however, is naive or detached concerns regarding ethics among people who are working in the EHS field.

Ethics are a critical issue.

Consulting ethics

Ethics certainly affect EHS consulting. In a 1997 ISHN survey of consultants, 56 percent said "competing with less qualified, low-cost providers" was one of the biggest challenges to running a successful business. Slightly more than one in ten (13 percent) also pointed to 'ethical conflicts with clients.'

It's easy to see why consultants are concerned about ethics. Training is one of their top revenue-producing activities. Too much training in the EHS field is a sham, an open door for unethical, low-cost providers (see my article in January 1998, ISHN: "How good is your Hazwoper training?"). Just about no one fails to pass an EHS course. If everyone was completely ethical in their training, some people would fail. That's real life. Except in the EHS field.

A big boon for consultants would be passage of Sen. Mike Enzi's (R-WY) SAFE Act. His bill would permit third-party consultants to conduct safety inspections, in lieu of OSHA, for the six million workplaces in the U.S. Some valid concerns have been voiced that the EHS field has not encouraged or enforced ethics well enough to ensure that significant fraud and abuse does not occur by third-party auditors.

We'd all like to believe that everyone is honest and plays by proper rules. But consider what Philip Ulmer, former ASSE Ethics Committee chairman and 1992/93 society president, wrote in a 1995 article in Professional Safety. Ulmer said we can expect 60 percent of a population to meet the norms established by a social structure, 20 percent will not meet the norms because of immaturity (they cannot tell the difference between right and wrong), 10-15 percent will show qualities exceeding norms, and 5-10 percent will vary from the value system in a way that is distracting, harmful or causes chaos.

In other words, there are always some bad apples in any social group.

Complex challenge

Enforcing ethics in the very diverse EHS field is a challenge. Every professional organization and association has established a professional code of conduct for its members. But in this age of the generalist, whose code do you follow? EHS pros are showing less and less allegiance to any one group.

The proliferation of EHS professional organizations and associations also creates ethical conflicts. For example, the Institute of Hazardous Materials Managers (IHMM) mailed a 'Special Edition Newsletter' to its members this past March explaining that another certifying organization in the field was, in polite terms, not acting ethically. Members were also told what IHMM was doing to police ethics within its own ranks.

Do EHS professional organizations and associations really enforce ethical actions by their members? The answer is simple: Can you recall just one case where someone was kicked out of an EHS association for not being ethical? I've never heard of it happening. I am aware, though, of doctors, lawyers, and pharmacists losing professional standing because of unethical acts.

We can't be passive about ethics. If statistics hold true, 5 percent or more of the people working in the EHS field are 'bad apples.' Don't be one of the 20 percent who are immature and cannot tell the difference between right and wrong, or one of those who are reluctant to make moral judgments. Don't be part of the silent majority that knows of problems but does nothing about them. Moral conviction should drive you to confront unethical conduct in the EHS field on the spot when you see it. This is one of the best ways to ensure that we all remain ethical for the good of the EHS field, as well as for the good of society.