ETHICS ; REGULATORY OUTLOOK
Ethics and OELs
BY JOHN P. BURKE
Ethical decisions involve a values conflict: is it better to do this
or that? What are the consequences of an action for myself, for
others, and for my environment? Does my decision conflict with
my personal values? When I make my decision, what are the
standards against which I will be judged?
We measure our actions against the values recognized by a
society, a community, a group or a profession, and these values
are not always directly aligned. In a literal sense, occupational
exposure limits (OELs) are standards that practicing industrial
hygienists use to manage exposure risk. The preface to the AIHA®
Strategy for Assessing and Managing Occupational Exposures, 2nd
edition, states, “The OEL, whether formally established or loosely
defined, is identified as an essential tool for judging any and all
workplace exposures.” Like any tool, the OEL is designed for an
intended purpose. OELs may be perceived as “go/no-go” values
for regulatory compliance, but they are most valuable when industrial hygienists who understand their basis and fundamental
limitations apply them in a manner that effectively reduces risk.
Can exposure judgments based on OELs contribute to a values
conflict? The following scenario explores this question.
Mike, a corporate industrial hygienist for a global business, conducts air sampling for chemical X in China, Taiwan and Japan.
The OELs for chemical X in these three countries are different:
the Japanese OEL is 40 ppm, the Taiwanese OEL is 50 ppm and
the Chinese OEL is 100 ppm. The 2009 Threshold Limit Value
(TLV®) for chemical X is 5 ppm. Mike’s company has a similar
work process in all three countries, and the air sampling results
from all three sites show that exposures range between 8 to 12
ppm. Mike is confident that these data are representative. Now
he must decide whether these exposures are acceptable. His recommendations will be made to his company’s regional business
manager for Asia.
Mike knows that the 2009 documentation for the newly
adopted TLV was based on exposures to chemical X in industries
where several other confounding exposures created uncertainty
about the primary agent responsible for the noted health effects.
He has reviewed the U.S. OSHA Advanced Notice of Proposed
Rulemaking, which proposes a new permissible exposure limit
equal to the TLV. Further research shows that the European
Union’s Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits
has noted other independent toxicological studies of chemical X
with significant conflicting data. Mike also knows that his company’s current business performance is poor and that capital expenditures are sharply reduced. Exposure reduction
improvements to the existing processes would take considerable
Does this scenario include opportunities for ethical conflict?
How has the variability of the OEL values contributed to Mike’s
dilemma? How much interpretation should Mike make about
the basis of each OEL? Is it right to recommend the spending of
additional money in all three locations? Is it always more ethical
to make the conservative decision?
Any industrial hygienist who has performed international
work has probably wrestled with some of these questions. Often,
they have no simple answers. Industrial hygienists are ethically