KANBrief 4/20

Ethical considerations in setting limit values

Atmospheric limit values for protecting human health against the adverse effects of hazardous substances at the workplace are generally set with reference to toxicological and occupational health data. However, consideration is often also given to technical feasibility and economic viability. What importance should be attached in prevention to cost-benefit considerations?

Atmospheric limit values based upon toxicological data may be health-based or risk-based. Health-based limit values assume that an effect threshold exists, i.e. a maximum concentration of the substance under consideration in the working environment below which adverse effects upon employees’ health need not be anticipated. For a number of chemicals, including many carcinogenic substances, no such effect threshold can be determined. This problem can be resolved by agreement in discussions of social policy on a target risk to human health that is not to be exceeded in the workplace. This risk should be as low as possible. In order for these criteria to be implemented in the regulatory framework, a specific exposure-risk relationship for the substance under consideration must be modelled from scientifically validated findings of animal experiments and epidemiological studies. In some countries of the European Union, including Poland, the Netherlands and Germany, sophisticated procedures for this purpose are already in place.

The aim of the German concept is for all employees to be subject at most to the same “acceptable” risk, which is considered very low. This principle should apply irrespective of a substance’s economic importance, the severity of the cancer to be prevented and the prospects for its treatment, and the numbers of people exposed. By contrast, the binding occupational exposure limit values (BOELVs) listed by the European Commission also take cost-benefit calculations into account. In this case, the potential years of life lost at current workplace exposure levels, and possibly also the reduced quality of life owing to pain, suffering and anxiety, are converted into a monetary value and weighed against the costs of the exposure reduction measures required to bring workplace concentrations below a new limit value.

Such approaches are inspired by utilitarian ethical concepts, in which an action is evaluated according to its consequences. In accordance with a well-known formula, utilitarianism promotes the greatest amount of good (or the greatest benefit) for the greatest number of people.

This approach lies in stark contrast to the deontological tradition of ethics, which was particularly influenced by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant regarded an action as being morally good when it arises from an inner obligation to obey certain generic rules, such as “Thou shalt not kill”. Under this principle, the right to life means quite simply that no one may be killed, not that a situation should be optimized for the survival of the greatest number of people.

Policies and conflicting ethical positions

In their absolute forms, neither strictly deontological dispositional ethics nor the consistently utilitarian maximization of benefits is sustainable. In democratic decision-making processes, a reasonable balance must be struck between collective optimization on the one hand and safeguarding the rights of the individual on the other. This balance requires utilitarian cost-benefit considerations to be constrained by inviolable deontological limits.

Even though standards may demand impact assessments and the prescribed protective measures must comply with the principle of proportionality, the human and personal rights deriving from deontological ethics and enshrined in many national and supranational constitutions must still be observed. Often, priority is given not to the right to life and physical integrity, but – as for example in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations or the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – to the right to human dignity. Objectifying people by treating them merely as a means of reaching decisions violates this sacrosanct principle. This occurs however when the welfare of one individual is put at risk in the interests of others.

Dr Eberhard Nies

This is an abridged version of an article entitled "Kosten-Nutzen-Analysen bei der Grenzwertsetzung für krebserzeugende Arbeitsstoffe – Betrachtungen zur Risikopolitik" (pdf) (cost-benefit analyses during setting of limit values for carcinogenic agents – considerations for risk policy), published in Gefahr­stoffe 80 (2020) No 07-08.