ETHICS n PROFESSIONAL GROWTH
The Ethics of Exporting Restricted or Dangerous Materials
BY JEFF THROCKMORTON
The “interface” between developed and developing countries
presents ethical companies who depend on Third-World suppliers with several challenges in protecting worker health and
safety abroad. (This relationship is described in more detail in
“A Fresh, Global Look at Ethics,” an article in the June/July
2013 issue of The Synergist®.) But this interface is only one
aspect of global business relationships that creates health and
safety issues. The scenario below illustrates another prominent
challenge for IHs: companies exporting to developing countries
items that have been deemed unsuitable or unsafe for domestic
consumption. Fortunately, most multinationals are responsible
and aware of the potential impact their exports could have in
the developing world. But the reality is that, globally speaking,
such exportation does occur.
“Frank" is a corporate industrial hygienist for a large multinational company that manufactures and distributes a wide
variety of specialty chemicals and pesticides. He loves the IH
profession because he believes it’s a field in which his contributions help make the world a better place. But Frank has sometimes felt that the sheer size and complexity of his company
thwarts his ability to effectively oversee and ensure safe operations, especially now.
In recent months, profits have been down, employees have
been laid off, and two key divisions were spun off as senior
management sought to turn a profit. In addition, Frank just returned from a business trip to Asia during which he witnessed
the following conditions in developing countries: small-scale
operations (run by a single family in some cases) dumping
toxic materials into canals or emitting visible plumes; children
thrilled to find empty containers to play with and use, regardless of the previous contents; people so fearful of losing their
crops to insects that they will use any pesticide available, regardless of the consequences or hazard, with no understanding
of proper application methods; and people with no understanding of personal protective equipment.
Upon his return, Frank learned that one of the remaining divisions of the company is shipping large quantities of pesticides
to Asia. These pesticides were formerly sold in the U.S., but are
now banned domestically. This exportation greatly concerned
Frank because he had just observed the harmful effects that
pesticides such as these can have in the developing world.
When Frank asked why the company is now shipping these
pesticides to a foreign market, his superiors’ reasoning was
that Asia is a profitable and growing market. Frank recognized
that this issue is not always “black and white.” Some foreign
insect species can be difficult to kill, and can ravage crops. And
foreign markets may simply not be able to afford more costly
pesticides. They need food.
His superiors said that the company is not breaking the
law and that the toxicological studies of the pesticides are not
perfect (although Frank knows the harm is fairly well proven).
They reminded Frank that several of the company’s domestic
plants are already teetering on closure, and that “times are
tough.” They were even thoughtful enough to ask if he liked
working for the company.
This scenario raises many questions. How much responsibility
do IHs have for the actions of their companies that involve the
export of potentially restricted materials? How much can they
have? How much should they have? Questions that are perhaps
even more to the point include: What are the ramifications of
identifying export issues? What, if any, are the consequences of
doing so? How can IHs help management understand if there
are problems in this area? What if management’s response is
inadequate or they refuse to take action?
Many of us work for great corporations that strive to improve
the lives of overseas workers and “raise the bar” in developing
countries where they have a presence. While Third-World countries are a “world apart” from the developing world, as illustrated