Corporate Misdeeds? You Must Blow the Whistle!

A leading professional society now requires such action

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

Chemical engineers who encounter or uncover a corporate misdeed that could impact the public’s wellbeing must act — at least if they’re members of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), Rugby, U.K. It recently revised its “Rules of Professional Conduct and Disciplinary Regulations” to oblige members to “raise a concern about a danger, risk, malpractice or wrongdoing which affects others (‘blow the whistle’) and support a colleague to whom the member has a duty of care who in good faith raises any such concern.”

Lapses occur — unfortunately, sometimes deliberately.

IChemE director Andy Furlong explains: “We have strengthened our code of conduct and this move provides further protection and support for chemical engineers who come across illegal practices. IChemE membership is a signal of trustworthy professionalism and it strengthens public trust in chemical engineering.”

Judith Hackitt, chair of the U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive, and an IChemE past president, welcomed IChemE’s move: “It is vital that all chemical engineers think about how they will uphold the high standards of our profession and who they will speak to if they need to report concerns about unethical or bad practices.”

No specific incident of whistleblowing or lack of it led to the revision of the rules, says IChemE. The institution simply decided it was time to explicitly address the issue.

IChemE provides a much clearer and stronger mandate than that, for instance, issued by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), New York City. Its “Code of Ethics” hints at the need for whistleblowing in some situations but doesn’t demand it. The code states that AIChE members should: “formally advise their employers or clients (and consider further disclosure, if warranted) if they perceive that a consequence of their duties will adversely affect the present or future health or safety of their colleagues or the public.” Perhaps it’s time for AIChE to revisit the code.

Requiring members to whistleblow or support people who do certainly is a worthwhile move. However, it puts the onus on members but lets the professional society itself off the hook for providing support. IChemE believes it might have a role to play. Indeed, it now is investigating the viability of setting up a mechanism to support whistleblowers. However, the institution cautions that it’s too early to say whether such a move is viable and what the mechanism might involve. Stay tuned!

We never can forget that the nature of many of the materials our industry uses and produces and the processes it operates can pose significant risks beyond the plant gate. That’s why, of course, safety and environmental protection are such priorities. However, lapses occur — unfortunately, sometimes deliberately. When we come across miscues or misdeeds that threaten the public wellbeing, we should not stay silent. Morality and ethics should compel taking action whether or not our professional societies demand it. That takes real courage, though. Speaking out can incur significant personal consequences, as Dirk Willard recounted last year in “Blow The Whistle.”  In addition, perseverance often is needed — I covered a classic example of this in “A Milestone Book Turns 50,” http://goo.gl/EM2xew, which focused on “Silent Spring” and its author Rachel Carson.

I applaud IChemE’s move. Telling members to whistleblow when necessary is worthwhile — but easy. Actually providing institutional support to whistleblowers is an important and all too rare action that IChemE certainly should consider.


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MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can email him at mrosenzweig@putman.net

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  • • Involvement of Insiders An inescapable fact is that wrongfully harmful conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions were what they were because those insiders who knew that they were wrongfully harmful did not effectively report them to oversight, auditors, regulators, the government, or the media. This is included in the causation of the exacerbation of all longstanding, outrageous, wrongfully harmful noncompliance . The insiders include potential whistleblowers. • Involvement of Chilling Effects An inescapable fact is that when wrongfully harmful conditions, behaviors, actions, and inactions were not reported by insiders the insiders knowing about them were deterred by chilling effects. These chilling effects are part of the indirect causation. “The nail that sticks up is hammered down.” “No one ever made Admiral by ratting on the Navy.” “A snitch in time saves nine.” “What happens on shift stays on shift.”

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  • To the Editor: The American Institute of Chemical Engineers provides a reasonable and balanced Code of Ethics for its members. As a member of AIChE, I take exception to Mark Rosenzweig’s statements concerning AIChE’s ethics policy in the editorial “Corporate Misdeeds? You Must Blow the Whistle!” which appeared in the February 2016 issue of Chemical Processing. To quote the editorial, “The code states that AIChE members should: ‘formally advise their employers or clients …’”, implying that such reporting is optional. This is not accurate. The AIChE Code of Ethics states, “To Achieve these Goals, Members shall … Formally advise their employers or clients …" There is a big difference between the words “should” and “shall”. While legal scholars may sometimes argue whether “shall” implies a mandate in legislation or regulation, in traditional, non-legal usage with the third person, “shall” communicates determination and direction, rather than choice or simple futurity. To me, this is more than a matter of mere semantics, and I hope you will make AIChE’s ethical commitment clear to readers of Chemical Processing. Dennis Griffith Houston, Texas

    Reply

  • To the Editor: I read your February editorial on whistle-blowing with interest and a good deal of concern. First of all, the editorial misrepresented the strength of AIChE’s commitment to whistle-blowing in its Code of Ethics by replacing the Code’s use of the word “shall” with “should.” This is a substantial difference that undercuts the key point of your editorial. The intent of the use of “shall” in AIChE’s Code was to mean “must.” However, in light of your misinterpretation, AIChE will consider changing the language in its code to ensure that the language is consistent with the intent and the mandate is clear and unambiguous. Second, the timing of your editorial is unfortunate, since it coincides with the onset of discussions between AIChE and IChemE on a number of matters, including ethics. Third, for AIChE’s part, I would point out that, over the last 25 years, we have been supplementing our Code of Ethics with other codes and guidance. Last year, we launched a Code of Conduct for participants in our events. For years, we have offered ethical guidelines for those who publish in our journals, magazines and books. The members of AIChE’s Board of Directors and all members of the AIChE staff must annually affirm compliance with a strict Conflict of Interest policy. And, of course, the work that our Center for Chemical Process Safety has done with its series of world-renowned safety guidelines, often referenced in legislation and regulation, and CCPS’s efforts to vastly improve training of undergraduates in process safety, are other demonstrations of AIChE’s deep ethical commitment. In fact, AIChE has often been acknowledged as a leader in ethics among engineering and scientific societies. That is a reason that AIChE’s Society for Biological Engineering has been selected, along with the American Physiological Society and the Biomedical Engineering Society, by the U.S. National Science Foundation to develop ethical guidance and training for publishing in the life sciences, where new advances require consideration not just of traditional publishing concerns, such as plagiarism and data integrity, but also of issues such as animal testing. I want readers of Chemical Processing and all Chemical Engineers to be assured that AIChE remains vigilant and at the forefront of efforts to assure the highest ethical practice of chemical engineering and ethical conduct in safeguarding our coworkers, our communities, and all of society. Gregory Stephanopoulos President AIChE and W.H. Dow Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    Reply

  • To the Editor: I read your February editorial on whistle-blowing with interest and a good deal of concern. First of all, the editorial misrepresented the strength of AIChE’s commitment to whistle-blowing in its Code of Ethics by replacing the Code’s use of the word “shall” with “should.” This is a substantial difference that undercuts the key point of your editorial. The intent of the use of “shall” in AIChE’s Code was to mean “must.” However, in light of your misinterpretation, AIChE will consider changing the language in its code to ensure that the language is consistent with the intent and the mandate is clear and unambiguous. Second, the timing of your editorial is unfortunate, since it coincides with the onset of discussions between AIChE and IChemE on a number of matters, including ethics. Third, for AIChE’s part, I would point out that, over the last 25 years, we have been supplementing our Code of Ethics with other codes and guidance. Last year, we launched a Code of Conduct for participants in our events. For years, we have offered ethical guidelines for those who publish in our journals, magazines and books. The members of AIChE’s Board of Directors and all members of the AIChE staff must annually affirm compliance with a strict Conflict of Interest policy. And, of course, the work that our Center for Chemical Process Safety has done with its series of world-renowned safety guidelines, often referenced in legislation and regulation, and CCPS’s efforts to vastly improve training of undergraduates in process safety, are other demonstrations of AIChE’s deep ethical commitment. In fact, AIChE has often been acknowledged as a leader in ethics among engineering and scientific societies. That is a reason that AIChE’s Society for Biological Engineering has been selected, along with the American Physiological Society and the Biomedical Engineering Society, by the U.S. National Science Foundation to develop ethical guidance and training for publishing in the life sciences, where new advances require consideration not just of traditional publishing concerns, such as plagiarism and data integrity, but also of issues such as animal testing. I want readers of Chemical Processing and all Chemical Engineers to be assured that AIChE remains vigilant and at the forefront of efforts to assure the highest ethical practice of chemical engineering and ethical conduct in safeguarding our coworkers, our communities, and all of society. Gregory Stephanopoulos President AIChE and W.H. Dow Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    Reply

  • You are right. I should have said "shall" instead of "should." However, that doesn't alter the main point -- namely, that while AIChE says members shall advise their employers and clients, it doesn't require members to do more than "consider further disclosure." So, if a member does consider disclosing an act that may harm public wellbeing but decides not to reveal it to others beyond the person's employer and client after such consideration, the member has complied with AIChE's code. IChemE now requires such wider disclosure as well as support of a member who reveals such an issue. That's an important difference.

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