By Ed Rutkowski
Baltimore Convention Center, Inner Harbor Baltimore, Md. (May 23, 2016)–Rita, a CIH and the new vice president for Product Stewardship at a U.S.-based apparel company, visits suppliers in Southeast Asia and finds a number of safety violations: blocked exits, incapacitated fire suppression devices, excessive noise and dust. When she returns, Rita informs senior managers that the potential consequences of these safety problems include immediate risk to workers’ lives and incalculable damage to the company’s brand. The senior managers, including the CEO, argue that the situation in the factories is not their responsibility. What should Rita do?
This scenario was one of several hypothetical ethical dilemmas under discussion at “International IH Ethics Debate,” an interactive session held today at AIHce 2016. To guide discussion, Joseph Ali, a research scholar at the Johns Hopkins Berman institute of Bioethics, introduced potential principles for the ethical practice of industrial hygiene—ideas such as avoiding harm, maximizing benefits, respecting others’ rights, and fair treatment. Consideration of these principles, Ali said, would lead someone in Rita’s position to vigorously question her own values as she considered how to convince her company’s management to do what she thinks is right.
Attendees at the session generally recommended that Rita press her case further with senior management. One of the presenters, Rob Agnew, an assistant professor in the Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology program at Oklahoma State University, responded that doing so could endanger Rita’s job, which could lead to additional ethical considerations, depending on her finances. If Rita is financially insecure, Agnew said, keeping her job becomes an important ethical consideration.
A third presenter, Mark Katchen, managing principal for the Phylmar Group, then introduced additional complexity into the scenario: suppose the CEO is receptive to Rita’s message, but asks for detailed recommendations about what the company can do to change the culture at its suppliers. One attendee suggested that the company could threaten to move the work to another factory if the supplier doesn’t fix its safety problems. However, Katchen responded that switching suppliers in the real world, especially in the apparel industry, isn’t always an improvement.
Other attendees whose companies have suppliers based in Europe responded that they have hired local professionals to coordinate and oversee all safety programs throughout their supply chain. Katchen acknowledged that this approach could be a potential solution for Rita’s company but questioned whether southeast Asia has enough local resources to make this strategy workable. All three presenters indicated that the lack of trained occupational health and safety professionals in developing countries presents major ethical dilemmas for companies with international supply chains. “Until you have the boots on the ground, it’s very difficult in my experience to have the right people looking at these things,” Katchen said.
A forthcoming article by Ali, Agnew, and Katchen in the June/July issue of The Synergist will further discuss international ethics for industrial hygienists.
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