Radiation Protection and the Ethics of Worker Exposures


K. Shrader-Frechette, L. Persson


Although society faces numerous threats, perhaps no technological or occupational question is more fraught with controversy and fear than the issue of acceptable exposures to ionizing radiation. The conflict suggests that "moral fundamentalism," oversimplification and rigidity, may be compromising the risk debate. On the one hand, the environmental hypochondriacs, proponents of zero risk, are opposed to worker risks' from radiation being higher than those to which members of the public are exposed. On the other hand, the industrial cannibalists, believing that everything (including health risk) has a price, maintain that, so long as workers agree to work for a given wage in a potentially dangerous situation, their radiation exposures are acceptable. This analysis attempts to find a middle path between two extreme positions, between the environmental hypochondriacs and the industrial cannibals. After reviewing international recommendations and national standards for occupational radiation exposures, the paper summarizes the major ethical theories so as to show how proponents of each ethical theory would support or criticize various radiation principles and practices. Finally the paper discusses four ethical issues crucial to the debate over workplace standards for radiation: (1) how to respond to the uncertainty over effects of low-dose exposures; (2) the conditions under which worker consent legitimates higher exposures; (3) whether there ought to be a double standard for worker exposures versus public exposures; and (4) whether ethics allows money-for-health tradeoffs in radiation protection. The paper concludes with several recommendations about how to make occupational exposure to radiation more ethically defensible.


This abstract was presented at the 35th Annual Midyear Meeting, "Decommissioning and Environmental Restoration", Controlling Dose I Session, 2/17/2002 - 2/20/2002, held in Orlando, FL.

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