How does one characterize the safety industry? Mature? Wise? Well-educated? Insular? Naïve? Unprofessional? Unethical? One way to test the maturity and professionalism of an industry is to search its publications, curriculum, conferences and representations through associations. If one looks at the safety Body of Knowledge alone it tells a clear story, with a 75% focus on regulation and systems. Many critical aspects of professional knowledge are simply missing. One such critical essential in professional knowledge is Ethics. In this regard Safety stands out as immature, naïve and insular. It doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, but it knows that other disciplines (transdisciplines) don’t offer it anything. Here is an industry that uses simplistic language about morality and ethics such as ‘do the right thing’ with little idea what this means and doesn’t mean.
If you ever work in Corrective Services you will know that most people justify what they do as ‘doing the right thing’. Most people who do what is defined by the courts and law as ‘wrong’ justify what they did as ‘good’. The Nazis proposed all they did as ‘doing the right thing’. Their eugenic frame for cleansing Germany was motivated for ‘doing the right thing’. (the same eugenics principles are used in safety to justify actions – https://safetyrisk.net/safety-eugenics-and-the-engineering-of-risk-aversion/ ) The Nazi death camps were all about ‘doing the right thing’. After all, they were only exterminating the enemies of Germany. All the regulations developed by the Nazis were designed to ‘do the right thing’. The regime of compliance was very clear and binary, you were either for Germany or you were its enemy. And disloyalty, non-compliance and dis-regulation was deemed ‘the wrong thing’. One should be rightfully skeptical of all binary frames.
Ethical practice is relative to social context, this is one of the first things one gathers in a study of Ethics. Unless one has some idea of what one’s Ethic is (https://safetyrisk.net/ethics-morality-and-an-ethic-of-risk/ ), anything can be justified as good. Understanding motive is like understanding justice, both are contingent on one’s Ethic. This is why the concept of Just Culture often becomes, a justification for bullying, rigid compliance and anything needed to achieve zero! Most often because the person who enacts Just Culture has no clearly articulated Ethic. Just Culture is not the balancing of safety and accountability but rather a dialectic between personhood and accountability.
If I make my goal zero, I can justify (hence a need to study justice) all tyranny, cruelty and viciousness in the name of good. When zero becomes the absolute for a safety Ethic, anything that lowers injury rates must be deemed ‘good’. When ‘all accidents are preventable’ becomes my mantra, then all actions to prevent accidents is justified.
One needs to study relativism to understand its tenets, one needs to study ethical pragmatism to recognize its principles, one needs to study utilitarianism to ‘see’ its affects. Remaining naïve, hiding behind simplistic adherence to ‘do the right thing’ is, head-in-the-sand safety. Just because a regulation is in place, doesn’t make it ethical. There are many times when context changes so that compliance to regulation can be unethical. This brings us back to the necessity to articulate an Ethic and to study Ethics. As yet, I know of no safety qualification globally that offers a study of Ethics.
Ethical know-how doesn’t come with the myth of common sense, so commonly heard across the safety industry. The notion of common sense belongs in the same naïve bucket as ‘do the right thing’. There is no natural ethic that can be divorced from culture, context and history, one learns this in the study of Natural Ethics. A common sense ethic is simply a justification of whatever one wants at the time. Anyone who doesn’t agree with the dominant paradigm is said to lack common sense, even though it too is never defined. Even the metaphors we chose to explain what we consider ‘acts of safety’, condition the moral enactment of a hidden Ethic.
I have discussed previously the studies of my two daughters, one in teaching and one in nursing, both being saturated with the study of Ethics in their first year as essential to their profession. Not so in safety, lets just memorise reams of text about regulation, legislation, systems and standards (even though we will never act as a lawyer) and never once set an ethical context for enactment. Such an unquestioning parrot approach to learning makes for parrots who don’t know the subjectivities of the law nor the critical thinking required to understand zero as unethical. This is why many in safety don’t understand Due Diligence (https://vimeo.com/162493843).
If you want to learn more about an Ethic of Risk (and Safety) you might like to enroll for the Module offered on 5,6 February in Canberra (https://cllr.com.au/product/an-ethic-of-risk-unit-17/).