Spilling the Beans: An Ethics Column

By Russell Ethridge

Today’s Machining World Archives January 2007 Volume 3 Issue 1

I had to go out the back door to smoke at a customer’s shop recently. There I found the shop’s regular “smoking lounge,” with a picnic table and butt can outside. When it’s cold, people prop open the door and stand just inside it.

When I got there, the door was propped open with a bucket. After fnishing my smoke, I slid the bucket out of the way to close the door and it tipped over, knocking the lid off and dumping a clear liquid over the grass and dirt. The label on the bucket said it was tricolor, a degreaser. I really didn’t smell anything so I just set it upright and let the door close. I know about environmental concerns.

A few years ago, my company had to spend huge amounts of money to excavate soil and monitor ground water after a fuel spill. Should I tell someone now? I don’t think anyone saw me, and I don’t even know if it was anything other than water.

Russell Says
The mother of all TV food chefs, the late Julia Childs, is reported to have remarked after an omelet slipped out of the pan during one of her live TV broadcasts, “Remember, you’re in the kitchen and no one saw that.” Fortunately, many of our awkward and clumsy moments go undetected, and we generally feel no obligation to subject ourselves to the embarrassment that disclosure might entail unless we have a need to “get it off our chest.” The exception is when our acts create consequences to ourselves or others beyond our private embarrassment. You certainly would disclose to your doctor a serious injury you foolishly caused yourself. If your car was stuck partially off the road around a blind curve because you were driving too fast, you’d try to warn approaching drivers if you could do so safely. You’d also notify the stock clerk if you’d knocked a bottle of juice off a grocery store shelf so no one would slip on the mess. Why is this different? Perhaps it’s the vast differences in the consequences of disclosure.

If the bucket contained just water, no one would care about spilling it. If the bucket had something toxic in it, however, the EPA would investigate, lots of money would be involved, and your customer might face possible violations for poor storage practices. But not disclosing could be worse. Maybe it was just water, but you’ll only feel relieved if you know that. If it was a solvent, the hazard to ground water that feeds the subdi-vision nearby is substantial. Asking immediately about the bucket’s contents might facilitate a rapid response that could prevent real harm and even greater costs. If you want to stay under the radar, ask someone in charge about the bucket’s contents because you saw it empty on its side with the lid next to it (the truth but not the whole truth) and wondered about the label. You shouldn’t take the blame if your clumsiness is revealed and the substance does turn out to be hazardous. Your customer is charged with the duty to handle these sorts of materials carefully, and using them as a door-stop doesn’t qualify. By asking what was in the bucket and reporting its apparent spill, you will either be relieved to know no harm was done, or relieved to know that you reported something potentially dangerous.

Citrus Degreaser and Cleaner (Photo from LabSafety)

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