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Safety ethics

Black and white? Or shades of gray?

October 1, 2012

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The practice of safety often has an ethical component. Often, the most ethical route is obvious, such as the choice between a legal option and an illegal one. Other times, multiple considerations may cloud a decision.

As Chris Marlowe, health and safety manager at Cambridge, MA-based CDM Smith, said, “We’re trying to optimize several parameters at the same time, and one of the parameters is, ‘Does the work get done and do we all stay employed?’”

CDM Smith specializes in environmental engineering, construction and consulting. Marlowe’s responsibility includes water systems, so his major considerations are keeping employees safe and ensuring high-quality drinking water for the public. He said the ethics he follows on the job are similar to the ethics he learned for life in general: “Don’t do any harm, be honest in your dealings, do a good job.”

His values line up with codes of conduct from various safety groups, which emphasize protecting people, property and the environment, along with displaying honesty and fairness. Most safety professionals probably follow similar ethical guidelines; the challenge comes in applying them when facing situational constraints and organizational priorities.

Do the right thing

Marlowe said he usually can determine the safest behavior, but rejected the notion that safety issues are black and white – there may be several choices to weigh, some more safe or realistic than others. For example, he faced a situation in which a client objected to the type of winch being used for confined space entry because the tool was designed for emergency rescue. Workers had to stop and buy another winch, causing a lost day of work. Marlowe said although the client technically was right, the two winches basically were the same and safety was not improved by using the second tool.

“If the shortcoming has no potential to hurt anybody, have I gotten back to the white or am I just light enough gray?” Marlowe asked. “Maybe safety does have some shade.”

Jan Wachter, associate professor in the Department of Safety Sciences at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, disagreed with the assertion that safety decisions come in shades of gray.

“Personally, I think it’s more black and white than we are led to believe – even among the [safety] professionals,” he said. “I think we have grayed our profession in order to accommodate the variances that we see management react to [regarding] what our needs are. Instead of standing up for what we believe to be the ethical choice of action, I think safety professionals have a propensity, in order to survive in the organization, for compromise.”

Wachter doubts that most companies really mean it when they say employees are their most important asset – when safety considerations come up against productivity and quality concerns, the latter two usually win out, he said.

He advocates moving beyond traditional approaches to safety, which are driven by regulation, loss prevention/control or risk reduction, and instead following ethics-based safety management. This approach incorporates ethical decision points into the work process, providing multiple opportunities to stop and consider the most ethical course of action. “You sort of hard-wire ethics into everyday operations,” Wachter said.

Organizations have achieved this, he said, when senior management accepts “because it is the right thing to do” as the justification for actions concerning safety and health.

“You don’t have to defend it on a cost-benefit analysis; you don’t have to base it on compliance with regulations; you don’t have to necessarily state that you’re going to reduce risk. The ultimate determinant is because it is the right thing to do,” Wachter said.

The tricky part is how to get there. Wachter believes the process begins with safety culture and management truly valuing employees.

Ethical climate

Safety professionals do not make decisions in a vacuum. “Your personal safety ethics are something that you have formed over your life and bring with you. However, I do believe that the organizational ethical climate can have an influence on your personal safety ethic,” said E. Andrew Kapp, associate professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Ethical climate refers to the organization’s shared perceptions about what behaviors are considered right or wrong. In Kapp’s view, the question is not whether a company is ethical or not, but what is its ethical foundation – what drives behavior? Companies may value safety but for different reasons based on their ethical climate.

In a study published in the Journal of Business Ethics (Vol. 80, No. 3), Kapp and researcher K. Praveen Parboteeah examined the connection between ethical climates and safety behaviors at five manufacturing plants.

Their research drew on the concept of ethical climates developed by Bart Victor and John Cullen, experts in management and organizational behavior. The three climate types are as follows:

  • Utilitarian (also called benevolent) revolves around the most good for the most people.
  • Principled supports following fundamental universal truths (i.e., obeying the law or doing the right thing).
  • Egoist promotes self-interest.

Fitting with Kapp and Parboteeah’s hypothesis, the utilitarian climate was associated with fewer injuries, and workers in principled climates showed more motivation to comply with rules. However, the utilitarian climate was not associated with a stronger motivation to improve safety, and the egoist climate was neither positive nor negative in terms of injuries and safety motivation.

As a result, Kapp said he believes a universally “ideal” climate does not exist, and cautioned against trying to change an ethical climate.

“It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s like trying to turn around a supertanker,” he said. “To change that climate just to get better safety results, you might end up losing the benefits to another area like production or sales.”

Instead, Kapp advised safety professionals to determine the ethical climate at their organization and connect to it. For example, in an egoist climate, let workers know that following the rules is in their best interest because being injured would reduce their quality of life. If the climate is utilitarian, communicate that helping to maintain a safe and healthy workplace will benefit fellow employees. In a principled climate, reiterate that safety is a key tenet driving the organization, he said.

At the same time, Kapp stressed that personal ethics play a critical role in safety performance. His research, published in the journal Safety Science (Vol. 50, No. 4), found that even in an environment where safety was not necessarily a top priority for management, a first-line supervisor with a personal commitment to safety could make a positive difference. Conversely, a first-line supervisor who does not value safety could diminish any positive influence coming from the top.

Change agent

Workers are most productive and comfortable when their personal ethics and organizational ethics line up, according to Kapp.

“As a member of management, you do owe allegiance to the company,” he said. “However, you do have your personal safety ethics, your professional safety ethics, and when those two come into conflict, that’s a very uncomfortable position to be in.”

Marlowe faced that type of situation in a previous position when he had a manager who disagreed with his emphasis on office ergonomics. Marlowe made it clear to the manager that ergonomics was a pressing concern, but followed orders to focus elsewhere.

“In that circumstance, my organization was wrong but I was not, in my opinion,” Marlowe said. He clarified that he would have been wrong if someone asked if the company had a great safety program and he said “yes.”

To safety professionals who would say he should have quit, Marlowe argued that staying does not mean he condoned wrongdoing. “You’re not a high priest of safety; you’re a technologist,” he said. “Your job is not to bless everything the organization does, although some people will ask you to do so.”

More broadly speaking, Marlowe suggested safety professionals need to take on the role of change agents, which sometimes means working in places that lack a strong commitment to safety.

“If safety people are only going to work for organizations that are already hyper-interested in safety, then the bulk of the population in the nation and the world are not going to get any safety services,” Marlowe said. “Our job is to work in places that need change, not in places that don’t.”

‘It’s not an easy road’

Standing up for personal ethics against management can exact a heavy toll, from isolation to job loss. Larry Mazzuckelli knows this well. He said he avoids “situational ethics,” instead sticking to the values he was raised with even when under pressure to change his position.

“To me, a situation is either right or it’s wrong. I don’t look for the gray areas,” he said.

Mazzuckelli, who retired from NIOSH and is now a senior advisor with Chaff and Co., a corporate communications agency in Chattanooga, TN, described the personal ramifications of choosing what he viewed as the ethical high ground. “You become ‘There’s Larry over there, you know how he is,’” he said. “You got to suck it up if you’re going to pick that road. It’s not an easy road.”

Like Marlowe, Mazzuckelli contends that safety professionals do not have to sacrifice their jobs because they disagree with an employer, but they have a moral responsibility to make their objection known.

“In many cases, that’s the best you can do,” he said.

He noted that safety professionals are bound by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, as well as a personal obligation, to address an imminent hazard such as unstable scaffolding. That differs, in his opinion, from a potential unverified risk such as debating the danger of a chemical. In such a case, Mazzuckelli said he would not draw a line in the sand without evidence.

For Wachter, the safety professional’s ethical duty is similar to that of the medical profession. “First of all, you ‘do no harm’ to the employees,” he said, “and then given what is available to you, you do your best in order to provide a safe and healthy work environment for your employees.”

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