Real Ethical Dilemmas for Safety People

In the workshop on An Ethic of Risk ( we raised discussion about what were the most significant ethical dilemmas for safety people. Some of these were listed here: As the discussion eschewed it became clear that these ethical dilemmas were real, daily and profoundly upsetting.

Interestingly, no one was interested in global disasters or theories of prevention or accident stories, they were interested in the day to day compromises that put their job on the line. So, in the interests of an Ethic of Risk I will discuss three of these dilemmas.

The first and most profound ethical dilemma for safety people is the financial rewarding of KPIs for injury data. Everyone present in the workshop stated just how much pressure was applied to their reporting to NOT put an obstacle in the way of their executives and remuneration. Hence, without being intentionally unethical, the safety people in the workshop described how they had to practice: ‘data gymnastics’, ‘fudging’ data and under-reporting, so that senior executives were not made angry. All present in the workshop described how political pressure to not tell the truth had become an accepted cultural norm in the culture of safety.

The second real and problematic ethical dilemma for safety people from the floor of the workshop was about: ’speaking up’, whistleblowing and honesty regarding safety reality. Many expressed the view that most people who whistleblow or speak up get the sack. This is despite all the spin out in the sector about ‘stop the job’, ‘speak up’ campaigns and so-called protections for whistleblowers. There is nothing like a mortgage hanging over your head to help you remain silent. Strange how Safety is so noisy about zero but so silent about it’s consequences.

The third ethical dilemma was about isolation. Many talked about the way safety people are demonized and considered lepers in organisations because of the way the industry has structured itself around policing, regulation and pettiness (driven of course by zero). Many spoke of informal association in states and territories because they found no support offered by formal associations. Many felt lonely because their ethical concerns are simply not raised by associations or addressed within organisations unless the CEO happens to be unique and not tied to the KPI injury swindle.

The discussion in the workshop extended for over 2 hours with no real solution in sight because a fourth problem and that was a lack of ethical leadership. All spoke of having left formal associations because they received no help or support for their fee paid. Some had even been given the sack for simply challenging the ideology of zero. Some didn’t take work because they had to accept the title of ‘zero harm advisor’ where the word ‘safety’ had been deleted out of the company.

Unfortunately, the industry continues to be without a discussion on an ethic of risk.

Safety people remain isolated in their ethical dilemmas with the only help offered being one of a ‘shut up and think of England’ approach. The deontological AIHS BoK on Ethics leaves it up to you, you are innately ethical, check your gut and do your duty.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

6 Replies to “Real Ethical Dilemmas for Safety People”

  1. Thank you Rob, for yet again providing thought provoking and insightful commentary. I can agree with much of what you write on the ethical challenges, including the serious lack of leadership in this space. Deep thinking safety professionals are often discussing deeply unpalatable truths about the organisation’s decisions, strategy and focus. In this way it can either be difficult for them to make themselves heard and understood, and when they are understood it can result in outright hostility due to the power balances and politics within organisations. I am saying nothing new.

    With so much ground to agree on, what I find a fascinating sticking point is the over articulation of the role of Zero…. Does Vision Zero itself require a prescriptive approach? I do not question that is an immature response, but is it not also possible to use the Vision- the aspiration to do no harm… to encourage engagement at all levels of the business about what kinds of culture and practices will move us towards ( and away from) that aspiration?

    Yes, I can see the harm of overly mechanistic goals and measures based on Zero. We have a long history of these measurement based approaches driving behaviours which were not conducive to safety… we all know the Esso Longford story about how over-focus on Zero LTI blinded the organisation to the growing latent risk of serious harm. It was my view that Zero Harm was an attempt to broaden this perspective, and to re-establish the question of “what is it that we should engage with, and focus on to reduce harm associated with our work?”

    Over the years this more nuanced discussion has degenerated in to loud camps on either side, and unfortunately both sides are speaking in their own cultic codes…. long gone are the times of open minded exploration… now are the times of ” you are with us or against us”…

    Last but not least… not everything is about Zero… we could ( and should) have a full and robust discussion about Ethics in our profession. We could discuss the industrial roots of our profession and how it grew … but few people these days even know how this profession actually evolved. In these roots lie the hints at the kinds of challenges we face today.

    This is your gig Dr Long, and an interesting gig it is. I am grateful for the opportunity to have an open minded discussion, and hope both sides of the cult of zero can relax a little to find there is a middle path.

    1. Hi Susan, you may notice I never used the word professional as applied to safety, I think this lack of leadership, particularly ethical leadership in the sector leaves a long way to go before that word would make sense compared to those who are professional but don’t have to announce it every time they open their mouth.

      have your read my book on zero and fallibility, Both free for download.

      My understanding of Zero is informed by a number of critical aspects of my worldview and these might take some time to discuss. In my understanding of what vision means there can be no vision in zero indeed, the opposite is the case. Seeking meaning and purpose in a semiotic absolute (an infinite absolute) sets a rather tragic trajectory of no hope for a fallible mortal. If we want to encourage engagement, listening, trust and enculturate a humanising approach to safety, then zero isn’t the language or semiotic to drive such. Neither is Zero the archetype that we would want driving our ethic of enactment.
      Your recognition of the binary camps is exactly what zero language must drive. A binary discourse and psychological goal of an absolute can only create such. My worldview is not one of either/or but rather a dialectic of both/and. As Keirkegaard discussed either-or he found place for humanising in the hyphen, a common semiotic in all my work. Such an existential dialectic sees no hope in zero and no love or learning in infallibility.
      Regarding ethics, I have been banging on about it for years just as I have to reform the WHS curriculum. The latest AIHS BoK piece on ethics demonstrates such an amateurish approach, nothing one could call professional and ethics is indeed the ‘soul ‘of what it means to act professionally. Hence, I never apply the word to the activity.
      In closing may I suggest you have a look at Piercian semiotics and the importance of a dialectic of the third. It is the binary mindset that would want to project me into some binary camp, I am strongly against binary oppositions and all my models, semiotcis and discourse are about the dialectical third. Yet it is those in engineering and safety science who remain strongly entrenched in binary oppositional thinking. Much more for discussion or if you want to catch up for a chat if you are in canberra some time, happy for that too.

  2. I wonder how many of the AIHS BoK Ethics and Professional Practice technical advisory panel and other contributors bothered tuning in to John Pilger’s recent foreboding documentary entitled The Dirty War on the NHS. It was screened on SBS television this evening although it may have clashed with the formulaic tripe on Channel 7’s My Kitchen Rules:

    It featured the infamous report from McKinsey & Company, a former employer of Safe Work Australia’s chairperson, Diane Smith-Gander AO.

    The Friedman doctrine, free market fundamentalism and neoliberal economics, ethics indeed.

    Greg Hunt MP our Minister for Disease was more than likely preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic.

    Wake up Australia.

    1. The counter-subversion of institutions for the public and common good is sport for Murdoch and cronies, a political game of disinformation that serves their love of greed. Unfortunately, with huge implications for the well being of many. Safety indeed!

  3. Thank you Rob it is a great summary. Surely the critical mass of people dissatisfied with the current trajectory is nearing a point where a body with truely professional goals and practices, for on the ground safety people can be established.

    1. No worries Jack. It’s a shame the peaks don’t know how to connect with what is happening on the ground nor provided realistic services for them. I can’t see anyone developing a competing network, too much trouble and besides I find most people in safety do it informally within their juristictions. In mine the local chapter of the AIHS gets very few to meetings.

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