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Michael Pritchard Professor; Co-Director of The Ethics Center Western Michigan University More Posts
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Occupational Health



Author(s) Michael Pritchard
Authoring Institution Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University
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Contributor(s) Michael Pritchard
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Authoring Institution (obsolete) Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, Western Michigan University
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Year 1998
Publisher provided Keywords ENGINEERING workplace Workplace Safety
Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Language English
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  • Posted 13 years ago


    The case says that "OSHA guidelines do not apply to
    chemicals that have not been tested" and that "a relatively
    small percentage of chemicals in the workplace have actually
    been tested." OSHA guidelines presumably apply to chemicals,
    and only to chemicals, that have been tested somewhere or
    other. Otherwise a company could refuse to comply with any OSHA
    guidelines on the ground that it, the company, had not tested
    any of the chemicals. So the way to read the case is that a
    large percentage of the chemicals used at ABC have not ever
    been tested for their toxicity anywhere and that therefore they
    are not subject to OSHA regulations.

    What this way of putting the matter brings out is that OSHA
    is presuming that a chemical is innocent until proven guilty.
    No chemical is presumed to cause health problems until it has
    been tested and, one supposes, shown to cause them.

    One must presume that OSHA has reasons for this presumption,
    for clearly they could make other presumptions, even the
    opposite one, namely, that no chemical is presumed safe until
    it has been shown not to cause harm. One likely reason is that
    many new compounds are very helpful, that large numbers are
    being introduced on a continual basis, and that testing each
    and every one of them for their toxicity would be a very
    expensive undertaking and to some measure useless when it is
    reasonable to assume that many will never be positioned so as
    to cause problems. For instance, PBB was introduced into the
    food chain in Michigan when it was accidentally mixed in with
    farm feed, and no one had a clue what the source of the problem
    was when the animals began to sicken and die. No one had ever
    tested PBB for its toxic effects, and with good reason: it
    would never occur to anyone that a compound primarily used to
    insulate heat sources would ever get into the food chain. No
    doubt many chemicals are like that and are never used in any
    manufacturing process where they are likely to cause

    Don Hayward's problem thus turns out to be relatively
    complex. Hayward cannot appeal to OSHA to prevent the workers
    from being harmed by hot metals, if they are, because the
    metals have not been tested by OSHA. So Hayward, if he pursues
    the matter, will be in the position of asking that ABC
    Manufacturing satisfy stricter guidelines than those required
    by OSHA.

    But Hayward is supervising workers who are becoming ill, and
    he has an obligation, as their supervisor, to see if he can
    find the source of the problem. He is presumably in charge of
    making sure that whatever it is that the workers are producing
    is in fact produced, produced in the quantity needed, and when
    it is needed. So if the workers he supervises are becoming ill,
    he needs to be concerned about their health just because their
    ill health may prevent his section of ABC from doing what it is
    supposed to do. But he also ought to be concerned about some of
    the long-term implications of the problem for the company. If
    the workers are becoming ill because of the toxicity of the hot
    metals they work with, then, whether OSHA guidelines apply or
    not, the company may have to pay the costs of long-term health
    care. That the use of metals which cause workers harm is not
    regulated by OSHA will not necessarily protect the company from
    a legal suit and perhaps vast monetary awards from sympathetic
    juries. So the immediate solution of ignoring the problem,
    which is the implication of Cal Brundage's remark that the
    company is in full compliance with OSHA guidelines, may have
    expensive long-term consequences.

    He thus has two concerns as an employee of ABC, both of
    which obligate him to pursue the matter. There is a third
    source of obligation. That is that some people are being
    harmed, that he is in a position to help, and that no one else
    who might help seems to care. The workers are being harmed. It
    may be that the cause is not the hot metals they are working
    with, but that seems the obvious first suspect. In any event,
    Hayward is the workers' supervisor, the one most immediately
    aware of the problem and, since Brundage, his supervisor, has
    made it clear that he is not going to pursue the matter, the
    one best positioned to help. He has an obligation to try to
    help them that comes from the obligation any of us have, as
    persons, to come to the aid of others in need of help when we
    can. This is an obligation that becomes more and more pointed
    the more harmed the persons are needing help, the less likely
    it is that they will receive help from others, the better
    positioned one is to give help, and so on.

    The question is what should he do. He has already approached
    his supervisor about the air quality. He might approach him
    again, explaining that although having higher air quality might
    have the company satisfying stricter guidelines than OSHA
    requires, their capacity to produce the product in his section
    is likely to be increased. That is, he might use a practical,
    not a moral argument, to get his supervisor to do something. He
    might also point out his concerns about the long-term legal
    consequences, and he might give his moral concerns an airing.
    He need not feel at this point, that is, that he has exhausted
    all possible avenues of discussion with the person most likely
    to be most helpful, his immediate supervisor.


    Searching the literature for something that might be helpful
    is another way to proceed. It is better to have some
    information about whether any of the hot metals may actually be
    causing a problem if he is to proceed. Of course, if he finds
    evidence that any have been tested and found to be cause health
    problems, he has a response to Brundage's remark that the
    workplace is in compliance with OSHA. It may be, but Don can
    then go to OSHA, point out that one of the metals not regulated
    has been tested and found toxic, and ask that it be regulated.
    Under such circumstances, ABC would be well-advised to go ahead
    and regulate the use of the metal in a way that would eliminate
    its toxic effects--either by not using it at all or by using it
    in a way, or under such conditions, that it could not cause

    The puzzle is why he has not gotten the article he has
    ordered. It seems odd that a supervisory engineer must get
    approval of his supervisor in order to have an article sent
    for. Why should anyone else control what one wants to read in
    the company library? But that is a given.

    It is also given that the actual request has twice failed to
    go through. Anyone who has ever worked in a bureaucracy can
    sympathize and wonder if, indeed, the requests did not get
    "lost in the shuffle." So Don cannot assume without more ado
    that Don is preventing him from getting his article. He should
    get another request form, take it to Don to get his signature
    right then and there, to take it back down to the librarian. He
    can explain to Cal that, for some reason, the request did not
    make it through, and since he wants to read the article, and
    has wanted it now for some months, he would like to hand carry
    the request. If Cal refuses, then he and Don can talk about
    that and Don will no doubt be faced with a new problem. But at
    least he will know what the problem is and can pursue it until
    it is resolved so he can do what he must do to try to help and
    protect his workers.

  • Posted 13 years ago

    Don Hayward is correct in his concern when several workers
    develop respiratory problems and complain about "those bad
    smelling fumes from the hot metals". When he checks this out
    with his superior Cal Brundage, he's told that the workplace is
    in full compliance with OSHA guidelines. But Don learns that
    only a small percentage of the chemicals in the workplace have
    been tested, and that OSHA guidelines do not apply to materials
    that have not been tested. What can he do? A lot!

    To quote from Anton (1989) "In view of the increased
    emphasis on toxicity, it is strongly recommended that when
    chemicals are being purchased for plant use, processes, and
    manufacturing, the manufacturer should supply a "Material
    Safety Data Sheet" (OSHA Form 20).

    The primary information shown in the data sheet for any
    chemical will include trade and chemical names and synonyms;
    chemical family, and possibly the formula; a list of hazardous
    ingredients; physical data; data on fire and explosion hazards;
    data on reactivity; proper procedures for cleaning up spills or
    leaks; special protection needed; special precautions that
    should be followed when using it; and first aid procedures in
    the event of an accident.

    Under the Toxic Substances Control Act, purchasers should
    get this information from the supplier upon request. It is in
    the best interest of employees to ask the supplier for the
    Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) before the materials are
    actually delivered into your plant.

    The company or plant itself must have personnel (or at least
    one person) who can understand and interpret the data and be
    able to recognize any gaps where additional information or
    technical expertise is required."

    OSHA has a Hazard Communication Standard. Again citing
    Anton(1989) this "is a 'performance standard,' which means that
    it describes objectives that must be met, but without
    specifying the method for accomplishing those objectives. The
    method is up to the individual organization to choose.

    The standard requires chemical manufacturers and importers
    to assess the chemicals which they produce or import, and all
    employers to use hazard communication programs to provide
    information - to their employees - concerning hazardous

    All the information that Don needs is available from the
    chemical manufacturers under the Toxic Substances Control Act.
    He should not drop the matter. Under this act, the
    manufacturers must provide him the information he needs. He
    doesn't need to waste his time trying to have the reference
    librarian find this information. It's available free from the
    manufacturers. He can also call the OSHA regional office, or
    call his local congressman. Either can provide any information
    about the about the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard and
    Toxic Substances Control Act.

    What Don has encountered is a typical management stonewall
    of a fundamental industrial hygiene requirement resulting from
    the fact that the supervisor obviously isn't knowledgeable of
    OSHA requirements regarding chemicals in the workplace, and
    doesn't want to take the time to find out about them.

    Successful safety programs depend on leadership by the
    employer, safe and healthful working conditions, and safe work
    practices by employees. By ignoring the first two, ABC
    Manufacturing is ignoring the purpose of OSHA "to assure so far
    as possible every working man and woman in the nation a safe
    and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human
    resources." The OSHA inspection, when it comes, will find and
    cite this violation. Solve it now and avoid the potential fine
    and reinspection.

    The best reference I have found for occupational health and
    safety matters, and have cited in my commentary, is:

    Occupational Safety and Health Management, 2nd edition.
    Anton, Thomas J., McGraw-Hill, 1989

  • Posted 13 years ago

    Don is trying to research health problems he fears may
    affect workers at ABC Manufacturing. He shows admirable
    initiative and concern for fellow employees. But his
    supervisor, Cal, prefers that potential health problems remain
    unknown, presumably for fear that ABC will have to make costly
    changes in the factory. To this point, Don's actions indicate
    commendable concern for the welfare of others, extending beyond
    his official responsibilities.

    Now we're supposed to believe that Cal has blocked Don's
    access to the library. Don should confront Cal with this and
    get it cleared up. If Cal has covertly refused Don's library
    access, he is being sneaky and shows himself to be
    untrustworthy. If he has reason not to want Don to use the
    library, he should order Don directly not to do so. Don should
    simply tell Cal that there are other libraries and he's going
    to get the article he wants somewhere, so Cal should stop being
    so petty. If Cal then orders Don to drop all further
    investigation into the problem, Don has the right to tell Cal
    that it's not within Cal's authority to control how he uses his
    free time.

    Suppose Don confirms his suspicions about the workplace
    chemical. In that event, he should initiate whatever steps are
    necessary to obtain company and OSHA review. This may not be
    easy, or even possible, but Don's responsibilities don't go any
    further than putting the problem on the way to solution. Don is
    not himself responsible for seeing that the problem is
    resolved; there are labor unions, government regulations, law
    courts and all the rest for that. As an engineer, his
    responsibility goes no further than to see to it that these
    other channels are activated.

    However Don might not want to do any of this in order not to
    antagonize his superior. He then obviously has a bit of a
    dilemma. If he's really afraid of Cal, he might be justified in
    dropping the investigation, or at least dropping it after
    discretely putting someone less exposed onto it, for example,
    the employee's labor union. He won't like this, but if he
    doesn't comply, he may have a fight coming, and may be
    disciplined or lose his job. This doesn't affect his ethical
    position, but he's entitled to temper ethics with prudence.

  • Posted 13 years ago

    This is a case about obstructionism, in a situation where
    undiscovered safety hazards are most probably present. Dan
    Hayward is the victim of deliberate attempts by his supervisor
    Cal Brundage to prevent him discovering any potentially
    compromising safety information about ABC's manufacturing

    Ethically the situation is clear. Managers and professionals
    such as Dan and Cal have a duty to preserve the health of their
    workers, and to minimize any likely threats to health caused by
    manufacturing processes. Hence any inaction or complacency by
    them with respect to these issues is morally wrong, and
    obstructionism (such as that by Cal) is doubly wrong because it
    prevents others (such as Dan) from carrying out their duties,
    in addition to being itself a form of inaction.

    What should Dan do? In this case or in general, he should do
    whatever it takes to get the necessary information, and to get
    it acted upon if the information reveals that there are
    legitimate health concerns about the manufacturing processes.
    If administrative 'stonewalling' continues, Dan may even have
    to go outside ABC Manufacturing (to regulators such as the
    OSHA, or to the press, for instance) to get appropriate action

    By so doing Dan might easily put his own job in jeopardy,
    but the obligation to ensure the safety of those one supervises
    is so fundamental that Dan must be prepared to risk getting
    fired. (An analogy: if one joins a police force, one must be
    prepared to risk getting shot at sometimes. It is part of the
    obligations which go with the job.)

    In a broader context however, does this account of safety
    responsibilities in the workplace place too much of a burden on
    the few individuals who are prepared to carry out their moral
    duty, whatever the personal cost? Or to put the problem another
    way, can it really be one's duty, or be morally required, that
    one should have to do things which could severely harm one's
    own interests? Should this rather be regarded as moral heroism
    (as being above and beyond the call of duty), rather than as
    being morally required of anyone holding such supervisory

    It seems to me that this concern over burdensomeness is
    legitimate, but that moral skepticism would be a very
    inappropriate response. The problem could instead be handled as
    follows. We should recognize that as members of a society we
    have some second-order moral duties, whose description includes
    a reference to one or more regular, first-order moral duties.
    In the present case, we have the second-order duty to reduce as
    far as possible the burdensomeness upon individuals of
    first-order moral duties such as that of protecting the health
    of those whom one supervises.

    This may sound complicated, but a ready-made analogy is at
    hand in standard legal systems and the sanctions they employ to
    achieve compliance. Broadly speaking, the purpose of a legal
    system is to ensure that everyone adheres to basic moral rules
    or standards in their social relations (no harming of others,
    and so on). The threat of sanctions or punishments for those
    who might break the laws serves to minimize the burdensomeness
    of obeying the laws for law-abiding citizens. Generally
    speaking, the sanctions ensure that it is in one's interest to
    obey the law rather than to break it, so that conforming to the
    law (and hence to the underlying moral rules) is generally a
    benefit rather than a burden to citizens.

    What we need to do (i.e., our second-order duty) in the
    present case is to ensure that there are enough legal and
    regulatory mechanisms in place so that people such as Don can
    do their first-order duty with a minimum of risk to themselves
    and their own careers. The regulations should also be designed
    so that the kinds of obstructionism employed by people such as
    Cal should pose great risks to their own careers (risks such as
    firing or imprisonment), so that even if they have no concern
    for morality, self-interest would motivate them to do the right

    Once we ensure that those who respect morality will
    generally have an excellent chance of succeeding in moral
    conflict situations, we will no longer be tempted to be
    skeptical about the extent of moral duties over such basic
    matters as health and safety issues. Much can and should be
    expected of each of us in the workplace, but we are entitled to
    full social and legal support in carrying out our difficult

Cite this page: "Occupational Health" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 6/15/1992 OEC Accessed: Saturday, August 17, 2019 <>