ACS is committed to helping combat the global COVID-19 pandemic with initiatives and free resources. Learn More

Professional Ethics And Chemical Safety - The Intersection

It may seem at first glance that there is no connection between ethics and safety. After all, "safety" implies a list of rules and regulations that we are required to follow to protect ourselves and everyone around us. These rules and regulations often have legal standing and are more than just a collection of best practices that have been compiled over the years by competent and concerned chemical professional for the betterment of their profession. Ethics, in contrast, seems sort of "fuzzy"; some people think one answer is right, some people disagree. In fact, we often observe that good people can have fundamental disagreements on individual issues of professional ethics. Many ethical positions are the result of an individual's cultural background and applicable experiences. So, where is the intersection?

There are policy documents put forth by the ACS that seek to give direction in conducting one's professional interactions. These documents do not have the weight of law, but do have the significance of having been formulated by official ACS committees and task forces, and have received formal approval by the ACS Board of Directors. Principal among these policy documents are the Chemist's Code of Conduct, the ACS Professional Employment Guidelines (PEG), and the ACS Academic Professional Guidelines (APG). In each of these are clear statements regarding the conduct of chemical professionals with regards to the culture of safety that is a vital part of every chemical enterprise.

Looking at these documents, it is clear that there are substantial ethical responsibilities incumbent to each chemical professional. It is not illegal to ignore (or be ignorant of) the provisions in PEG and APG that refer to chemical safety. However, because these are considered statements defining those actions that we term "professional:' the guidelines in PEG and APG fall into the realm of ethics. Is it ethical to ignore the provisions in PEG and APG? Are all cases alike? Are these guidelines inviolate? These are the questions that you, as an individual chemical professional, must answer in your own way, in your own time.

The situations in the following sections seek to illustrate the intersection of ethics and safety in the chemical profession. Questions are posed that may seem unfair or may make you uncomfortable. There may be no good answer for a particular situation. In other words, it's not black and white, right or wrong - it's the realm of professional ethics. With the Chemist's Code of Conduct, PEG, and APG as your guides, we invite you to explore the following cases, Please comment back to us.

Sheri Sangji/UCLA