Safety Golden Rules, Leadership and Ethics

Safety Golden Rules, Leadership and Ethics

We all know how massively complicated, confusing and unwieldy Safety Management Systems have become (see Measuring Safety, You’ve Got It All Wrong). Many companies (co-incidentally those who have created these convoluted behemoths of safety systems) have tried reduce the confusion and the new risk this has created by introducing “Golden Safety Rules”. Some have fancy names like: “Fatal Risk Protocols”, “Life Saving Rules”, “Cardinal Rules” and “Safety Non-negotiables”  – But, how many consider the Morals and Ethics of these absolutes and intolerances???

imageTo quote Dr Rob Long:

Rules are parts of systems and systems serve humans not humans serve systems. Unfortunately, safety engineers seem to think that humans serve systems.

People don’t die because they break Cardinal rules, you can die just as easily by keeping all the rules. This is the nature of turbulence when rules don’t fit context, change and adaptability. Decision making and human judgement is not simple nor black and white and because risk is all about uncertainty there is no formula for every context as change and randomness alter the landscape of choice and decision. So what is a rule one minute can just as easy be a burden in the next. This is the nature of human decision making and the social shaping of culture and environment. A culture built on absolutes has to be ruled absolutely, what a fearful and terrifying culture.

Below is another great articles by Kevin Jones. Kevin’s commentaries on his Safetyatwork blog (A smartcompany Top 20 business blog) are very highly regarded by Safety Professionals, Employers, Govt Authorities and the Media. Kevin is based in Victoria, Australia and is currently looking for new opportunities. You can contact him via email: Jonesk@safetyatwork.biz  mobile phone: +61 434 121 163 or his LinkedIn Profile

Golden Rule, ethics, leadership and workplace safety

First published here

There is a legislative basis for occupational health and safety (OHS) but before the laws, there was morality and it is this morality to which most OHS professionals will refer when asked why they work in Safety. But I know no more about morality than anyone else.  So what do I do in these situations? I get a book.

The book I chose was by Julian Baggini, called Ethics – The Big Questions. (Unless you want to look intellectual, I’d get the e-book)

Baggini discusses “The Golden Rule“, a concept that has been bastardised into corporate language, usually in a written Pledge or Commitment.  OHS has often manipulated the Golden Rule into the Top 10 Golden Rules of Safety, or other nonsense, without thinking about the Golden Rule itself.  This is partly laziness on the part of the OHS professionals but also because OHS professionals are rarely, if ever, taught about the ethics and morality that underpins their discipline.  The Golden Rule is usually a combination of  the positive and the negative, what to do and what not to do:

“do unto others as we would be done by;… not to do unto others what we would not like done to ourselves” (page 9)

The Biblical comparison should be evident to most readers.  Baggini writes

“We need to treat people well, not just avoid treating them badly.

In practice, however, it’s not clear that this difference amounts to anything more substantive that one of emphasis. For example, take how it might apply to driving.  In the negative version, as long as we don’t drive dangerously, risking harm to others, we can do whatever we like. In the positive version, we should do more, stopping to help if we notice someone has broken down by the side of the road, or calling the emergency services if we see an accident.” (page 9)

The example could easily be one of OHS:

“In the negative version, as long as we don’t work dangerously, risking harm to others, we can do whatever we like. In the positive version, we should do more, stopping to help if we notice someone is struggling with their work task, or calling the works supervisor if we see a hazard.”

Ideally you would stop the hazard and then call the supervisor.

Of course these examples focus on our individual decision making but each exists within the broader social or occupational context. However, those contexts are not universal.  Baggini writes

“… we have to think of what it would be reasonable to ask of others.  But as soon as we do this, we have to invoke, at least implicitly, certain values that state what is fair, just or reasonable – and there are many different, incompatible values we might choose, such as distributing wealth on the basis of need or reward for achievement. So the Golden Rule doesn’t actually generate a universal ethic.” (page 12)

OHS laws and guidances assist us in determining what is reasonable in terms of risk controls but the laws are no help in determining whether these are also fair or just.

Baggini suggests that the Golden Rule is perhaps a “meta-rule, a rule about rules”.  He writes

“Consistency demands that you expect yourself to follow the same rules as you require others to follow, and they to follow the ones you do” (page 142)

Does anyone else see Safety Leadership in these words?

Baggini concludes the discussion on the Golden Rule (which is only the first chapter of the book!) with:

“As a crude rule of thumb, [the Golden Rule] can be seen as a reminder, an invitation to look at things more objectively, taking into account the perspectives, needs and desires of others as well as ourselves.  In that sense, it is a call to empathy, which psychologists believe is essential for moral reasoning.  It is also a warning that it is not reasonable to make arbitrary distinctions between people, or make self-serving exceptions to moral rules.” (page 16)

This extract reflects the obligations for workers and managers to consult about OHS matters.  It also emphasises the need to listen, and the need to empathise. To quote Harper Lee:

“One time Atticus said you never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them.”

OHS trainers and others often impose what they believe “works” for the company through fashionable interpretations of leadership, the Golden Rule, individual accountability and responsibility but rarely take the conversation to the next analytical level.  They choose not to do so as this is not what the company wants and, more importantly, not what the companies are willing to pay for.

Yet to eliminate workplace hazards at the source requires a challenging, and perhaps forensic, analysis.  Applying this necessary part of OHS could threaten the moral basis, or the corporate rationalisations, for how a company is managed or whether the company has a fair and just business model. (Look at the recent 7- Eleven controversy in Australia for more on this)

Occupational health and safety is essentially the application of a moral and ethical framework into workplaces and on how work is performed.  OHS professionals should not be afraid of discussing their profession in these philosophical terms.  They already operate to these criteria – “I don’t want to see anyone hurt at work” – but rarely analyse why this is so.  It’s time to start the discussion.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below