The Ethics of Safety

A very popular article by Dr Rob Long from the recent past:

The Ethics of Safety

Quote:

The key to the effectiveness of an ethic in safety is the humanization of others and the building of relationships. It is strange that the vice of intolerance is advocated in the workplace but we would never want such a vice in our home relationships. The challenge for the safety community is to understand the impact of negative ethics and seek positive ethics in the promotion of care, safety and the management of risk.

With the news of corruption within Leighton Holdings  and evidence of corruption in sport (football drugs scandal), unions  and political parties it is timely to raise the issue of ethics in relation to safety.

Most people in safety are familiar with the notion of a ‘code of ethics’ and professional standards, such codes and standards are the systematic articulation of the core values and principles by which individuals and organisations seek to act. At the foundation of ethics are moral principles by which human activity is judged as right or wrong. At this level the following beliefs are held: respect for persons, the value of humanity, environment and community, the non-exploitation of others, the humanization of people, the prioritization of human rights and common good. Unethical conduct generally demonstrates the misuse of power: for self, exploitation of others, dehumanization in outcomes and the oppression of others. Associated with the idea of ethical practice are virtues such as: justice, tolerance, love, generosity, acceptance, honesty, integrity, respect, courage, hope and wisdom. Vices such as: greed, slander, lust, violence, exploitation and selfishness are considered anti-human and ‘depraved’. In this article I will outline three popular ethical actions that are negative and three that are positive for consideration.

clip_image002Recent examples of corruption show that the ethic of ‘the end justifies the means’ (advocated by pragmatism and utilitarianism) is alive and thriving in the safety community. At the foundation of this ethic is the idea that outcomes and outputs justify process. So, as long as I have an honourable motive and achieve a (self defined) good outcome, the action is justified regardless of who is dehumanized in the process. This is how the ideology of zero justifies its absolutist claims over others and demands perfectionism of fallible others. Since when did intolerance become a virtue? In this ethic, the denial of self determination, denial of autonomy of others, the coercion of compliance and disempowerment of others is justified for a ‘greater’ good (no harm). The freedom of others, choice in risk and self determination in risk is of no value to the ideology of risk aversion. We see this often in the way safety people make choices to ‘save others from themselves’. It is strange that safety people seem delighted to override the self determination of others but don’t like when it is foisted on themselves. The assumption of this ethic is that all others are stupid, irresponsible and ignorant. Such an ethic has no notion of competing goals, psychology of risk or heuristics. This ethic is evident in the Victorian TAC road safety campaign where this week they have gone to new heights in Melbourne in insulting the public, soon the poster will come out that everyone is a friend of a bloody idiot, indeed we are all bloody idiots except the Victorian TAC.

Further read the article https://safetyrisk.net/whose-the-bloody-idiot/

Another ethic that seems to govern safety is the ‘ethic of entitlement’, in this ethic one assumes power and authority over others justified by regulation, legislation and some sense of superior good. What often results is a delusional sense of what is entitled to those in privileged positions and it doesn’t take long before ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’. This is evident in the way politicians rort the system (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-29/michael-smith-wedding-barnaby-joyce-george-brandis-expenses/4987502), unionists use credit cards and bribes are offered by big business to gain advantage over others who are ethical in business. The Leighton Holdings corruption shows that nothing was learned from the AWB oil for wheat scandal . When such an ethic is normalized in a culture, lessons from history don’t matter, entitlement creates a hubris that believes it is immune from fault. How is this ethic demonstrated in safety? There are countless ways that some safety people enjoy the power of the WHS Act to wield submission over others. It seems there is nothing so juicy as inflicting a major non-conformance on an organisation for something petty. The best at this is the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner (OFSC). The number of ridiculous non-conformances issued by the OFSC, justified by power and safety, are chronicled by many of the construction companies I know. One was recently given a major non-conformance for not having a data sheet for a toner cartridge!

Another more recent prominent ethic is ‘justification by volume’, something is deemed right because it is supported by volume and traffic. We see this in the Dumb Ways to Die campaign, the dehumanizing of anyone who commits suicide as ‘dumb’ justified by the number of hits on Youtube. Not only has this program been ineffective in outcomes (https://safetyrisk.net/dumb-ways-to-measure-effectiveness/) it has germinated a whole desensitization campaign to the plight of suicide, particularly youth suicide. The DWTD campaign has currently 60 million hits in 12 months on Youtube, Miley Cyrus nude has 184 million hits in 1 month. This shows the absurdity of this ethic, this simplistic ethic seems to think that something is ‘good’ regardless of human outcome. Youth suicide is such a great tragedy and ought not to be promoted or young people desensitized to its destructiveness. The idea that some safety people think this ad is ‘cute’ and ‘effective’ is alarming.

There are three critical ethics that should apply to the enactment of safety.

1. When it comes to safety ‘the ethic of humanizing others’ should be paramount. One can have quite honourable motives such as not wishing anyone to be harmed, but this doesn’t justify the dehumanization of others in the process. Two wrongs don’t make something right. The idea that zero leads to tolerance, understanding and self determination is a nonsense, ‘absolutes corrupt absolutely’. Zero is not an ethic for safety. The priming of the ideology, the cynicism it generates, the incongruence it fosters and the skepticism driven by its absurd targets and discourse are all culturally destructive. For example, the current rate of fatalities on Victorian roads is higher than the 5 year average and yet the insulting and unethical bloody idiot campaign continues. How does a negative parading of insults create a positive culture? The Vision Zero Road Safety Campaign for Victorian roads looks more like a joke than something people can believe in. (http://www.monash.edu.au/miri/research/reports/papers/visionzero.html) Charged by simplistic binary opposition thinking, such a campaign and ethic denies the realities of competing goals and human fallibility.

clip_image0042. In safety one needs an ‘ethic of longsightedness’ and have some sense of the trajectory of values. For example, in the ACT where ACT Worksafe is on a blitz of fines and punitive blindsidedness they seem to think that people will also speak up about safety (http://www.worksafe.act.gov.au/page/view/3455)? This is the kind of simplistic stuff that comes about by short-sightedness and not understanding competing goals and ethical trajectories. The ethic of short-sightedness most often leads to naivety about long-term consequence, this was what Essendon might have learned when they lost their place in the finals. Short-sightedness doesn’t see the big picture and justifies injustice over competitors, for the sake of a flag.

3. An approach to safety ethics ought to consider the ‘ethic of reciprocation’, that is, acting towards others as you yourself would like to be treated. This is why bullying is so harmful. It is also interesting that the psychological harm and mental unhealth generated by the over-powering of others and dehumanization of others in the workplace is not counted by the zero harm advocates? It seems if you can’t see the harm, there is no harm. The same ethic of lack of transparency governs the nonsense policy to not report boat arrivals in northern Australia. If we don’t hear about the boats we will think the government has stopped the boats. Secrets and a lack of transparency have no place in safety, the elevation of punishment will simply encourage underreporting and delusion by silence.

The ethic of reciprocation is concerned about oppression, victimization, bullying and intolerance, such may seem good for ‘other’ people but when we make a mistake we expect forgiveness, understanding and compassion.

The key to the effectiveness of an ethic in safety is the humanization of others and the building of relationships. It is strange that the vice of intolerance is advocated in the workplace but we would never want such a vice in our home relationships. The challenge for the safety community is to understand the impact of negative ethics and seek positive ethics in the promotion of care, safety and the management of risk.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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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.

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