‘Ethical Responsibility’ in Safety, You’re on Your Own Baby!


‘Ethical Responsibility’ in Safety, You’re on Your Own Baby!

imageIt’s interesting to read in safety the casual use of the terms ‘ethical responsibility’ and ‘essence of ethics’ as marketed by the AIHS as:

‘The Essence of Ethics’ objective is to develop the basic personal ethical capability of AIHS members and certified OHS professionals and practitioners where ethical capability is defined as:

…the ability to identify and respond effectively to ethical issues by making, implementing and managing ethical decisions particularly when influenced, pressured or forced to do otherwise – either as an organisation or as an individual. (OHS BoK 38.3 Ethics and Professional, p. 44)

Of course, none of this is about the essence of ethics. Indeed, when the AIHS BoK on Ethics blends morality and ethics as the same thing and entertains no discussion on essentials in understanding ethics, my question is: ‘Do you want fries with that’?

Hidden in this quote is not just the woolly and obscure notion of ‘respond effectively’ but more importantly the use of the term ‘personal ethical capability’. What is it this ‘personal capability’ that defines ‘effectiveness’ when ethics and morality are combined as one in a document that uses the language of both as dissimilar? How does one ‘develop personal ethical capability’ when the AIHS BoK on Ethics advocates that persons in safety are naturally ethical (deontological ethics), the law is ethical (deontological) and the mode of developing ethical capability is by ‘check your gut’ (deontology)? (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/) Yet at no place in this chapter is its own ethic (deontological) owned or made transparent? Such a lack of transparency is ‘essentially’ unethical! Naturally, the ethic of transparency is not discussed in the chapter either.

How interesting to teach a course on the ‘essence of ethics’ when the many things essential to ethics are NOT in the AIHS BoK on Ethics! It’s smoke and mirrors folks, when you finish working your way through the text you will soon learn, ‘you’re on your own baby!’

How interesting to set a course based on the AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics  when the Chapter ignores the foundational essentials of ethics.


So, let’s go to the source and have a look at the Chapter:

‘In reality, ethics and morals combine to determine professional behaviour and so, for the purposes of this chapter, the terms will be used interchangeably’. (p.1) Then read throughout the document how both words are used in very different ways to distinguish quite different meanings, resulting in confusion and contradictions throughout the text. Perhaps read what the Ethics Centre says: https://ethics.org.au/ethics-morality-law-whats-the-difference/ or perhaps read thse: https://keydifferences.com/difference-between-morals-and-ethics.html; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279685427_Commentary_on_Ethics_and_Morality It is also quite telling that the text contains no discussion of morality within the context of religion.

‘Having specialised knowledge gives professionals power. “Balancing the use of this power for individual and public good, while meeting their own needs, obliges professionals to behave ethically” (Beaton, 2010, p. 2) with ethics being “the very soul of professionalism” (p.1) How fascinating to declare ethics as the ‘soul’ of professionalism when a formal study of ethics is in no OHS curriculum globally and comes at chapter 38.3 in the AHIS BoK. Similarly, when the chapter itself omits many essentials to an ‘essence of ethics’ what kind of ethics is it? What we do know is that Ethics is little more than a brand in the industry whether in traditional safety or so called ‘safety differently’. Ethics is a word that gets thrown into the mix that has no meaningful relevance. It certainly isn’t ‘the soul’ of the industry which is therefore not a profession.

‘OHS professionals have an inbuilt desire to be ethical’ (p.2) Amazing! Inbuilt! Perhaps ‘god given’, Kant would be pleased.

‘As there is a moral duty to obey the law (with some rare caveats), an OHS professional who is in breach of the law is likely to be behaving unethically’. (p5) Here we see no interchangeability, both words clearly mean two different things. That’s how language and definition work. Here we also see ‘the law’ presented as deontological. Under this assumption if I disobey the laws of Germany (god given) in 1941 I am behaving unethically. Professional lawyers do not consider the law like this.

‘Indeed, the intersecting moral, ethical and legal lines may appear blurry at times’ (p.7) Why use three words when the chapter defines them as interchangeable?

‘These basic examples highlight that ethical considerations, moral dilemmas, the OHS professional’s general attitudes and beliefs about what is right or wrong, and the fundamental principles surrounding moral and ethical judgment, are increasingly recognised according to law’. 
(p.7) Here again we see that the concept of ethics, morality and law as NOT interchangeable. Obviously, ‘moral and ethical judgement’ are different otherwise, why list them as two distinct things. This confusion is constant throughout the text. Eg. the safety person as ‘moral agent’ with inherent ‘moral motivation’.

‘Moral language is an important enabler of ethical awareness’. (p.13) But I thought morality and ethics were interchangeable?

‘Moral disengagement explains how it is possible for good people to behave unethically and to be able to live with themselves without feeling discomfort or distress’. (p.19) Yet safety people have an ‘inbuilt desire to be ethical’. Hmmm, the special people.

‘Dekker (2017, p. 131) identified the existence of “discretionary space into which no system improvement can completely reach” and noted that while the system will influence how people carry out their duties, it cannot be a substitute for the responsibility borne by individuals in that space. Thus, it is important to understand how the culture/system influences ethical decision-making by individuals, as well as the boundaries to discretionary decision-making and accountability within the discretionary space’. (p.22) Ahh, here it is, you are on your own. ‘Ethical responsibility’ is ‘individual responsibility’. Regardless of culture and organisation, ‘ethical responsibility’ is individual responsibility’. Of course, Dekker and many of those quoted in the AIHS BoK Chapter are safety people not ethicists.

‘Language influences how we think about and perceive a situation and so how we might consider the ethical issues associated with a situation. The words we use will be influenced by the terminology of our discipline, the culture of the organisation, the context in which the situation occurs, the terminology used by others and our own background and experiences’. (p. 24) Yes, exactly, so when your discourse in safety is framed by ‘zero’, ‘TRIFR” or ‘drift into failure’, that obviously has no consequence for the way safety is enacted.

‘Such qualities require that OHS professionals are not influenced by external sources such as their employing organisation and its management, or their own biases and attitudes’. (p.38) Yet previous discussion in the text demonstrates that this is impossible.

As identified in section 5.2, the first step in ethical decision-making is recognising that an ethical decision-making situation exists. ‘Even then, people may fail to address a conflict of interest due to self-deception and rationalisation arising from self-interest, obedience to authority, conformity to the group and personal biases’ (section 5.3). (p.39) So here we are with a need to recognise an ethical situation with no curriculum of ethics in the industry which leads safety people back to intuition, check your gut and no discussion about what this means. Indeed,

‘OHS professionals require both technical knowledge and ethical competence, with reflection-on-practice being a key aspect of ethical capability. With continued reflection-on- practice, ethical capability for the experienced OHS professional will likely become knowing- in-action where, except in particularly challenging situations, the professional does not need to consciously think about what is right’. While ethical competence may develop through experience, it usually requires some formal educational underpinning.’(p.44) How interesting when the safety industry provides no curriculum for either reflective practice, critical thinking or ethics! Obviously, this is because safety people know what is intuitively right (deontological, natural law ethics). This of course listed under the sub-heading of ‘individual ethical capability’.

‘Provides unbiased and impartial advice … provides advice informed by technical and conceptual knowledge’ (p.45) This is what the text tells us is ‘ethical practice’ locking safety into a mechanistic paradigm that of course mono-disciplinary unable to negotiate with other disciplines that understand an ‘ethic of risk’ in non-mechanistic worldviews. The ‘performance criteria’ listed from INSHPO on p.45 is all technical, mechanistic, individualist and behaviourist.

A familiar challenge for OHS professionals is the gradual normalisation of small deviations from what might be considered required behaviour. This phenomenon is known as ‘drift;’ that is, “Continuous organisational and operational adaptation around goal conflicts and uncertainty produces small step-wise normalisations of what was previously judged as deviant” (Dekker, 2011, p. 15). (p.46). How incredible to accept the language/thesis of Dekker as authoritative and the thesis of gradual insidious deviance. Neither deviance nor cultural normalisation are discussed in the text. The text similarly endorses the ‘Dekker view’ in several places without criticism or analysis eg. the notion of ‘Just Culture’. The text in no place discusses the complexities and philosophical issues associated with justice as a central issue to ethics and power.

‘While integral to the professional role, application of ethical decision-making in professional practice can present many difficulties. It requires complex thinking and analysis, and also the will and skill to ‘speak up.’ (p.47) At no place does the document consider the fundamental problem of power. The nature of power and personhood is foundational to ethics, and such discussion is completely omitted from the text. Of course, at this point any notion of ‘speaking up’ invokes a clash with authority, those in governance and often written and hidden rules of engagement. Yet we are told that safety people must be compliant and obey the law. Many such contradictions are threaded throughout the text and provide no guidance regarding paradox in ethics, morality and/or the subjectivities of the law.

‘Check your gut

The previous stages of this analysis are based on rational and structured thinking and action; however, intuition also has an important role in ethical decision-making. If your gut tells you that something is wrong, it probably is. Pay attention to your gut, but don’t let it make the decision for you as rational decision-making is important’. (p.51) At no place in the document is the any discussion of what intuition is. There is no discussion of the nature of the human unconscious or collective unconscious, nor what part any of these play in decision making. Yet, ‘check your gut’ is made the final consideration before implementation!

Whistle blowing. (p.54) Without a discussion of power, politics, paradox, personhood, discourse, critical theory or the moral/ethical divide this section provides nothing of value to the industry. Indeed, it leaves the safety person on their own to ‘transfer or resign’. What a way to end the chapter and of course by quoting yet another safety person Hopkins.

There is much more to this chapter that leaves the safety person on their own, not least of which that their association has no capability to advocate for them ethically. Indeed, the nation of advocacy that is essential to a moral position that gives voice to Power, is not discussed in the text.

What we learn from this chapter on ethics is that its everyone for themselves and when it comes to ethics, you are on your own, ‘be prepared to transfer or resign’.

What we do know is that the evolution of ‘ethical responsibility’ has come to mean in western society to be ‘individual responsibility’. The evolution of individual responsibility in ethics has been well documented (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp4FGAv2gks ). Such is foundational to the success of neoliberalism in western societies. This is also endorsed by the so-called success of people like Jordan Peterson and other commentators that normalize ethics in individualism. The language of ‘social life’, ‘mutuality’, ‘community’, ‘communitie’, ‘resilience’ and ‘persons’ is completely omitted from the AIHS BoK Chapter on Ethics.

Hidden in all this discourse of the AIHS BoK Chapter is the neoliberal definition of ‘the self’. Similarly, the text has no discussion of causality and the hidden ethic in the idea of ‘root cause’. Echoing the Augustinian edict of Original Sin, the challenges of ‘fallibility’ are not discussed. When the chapter anchors ethics to intuition (check your gut) it encourages inwardness and blame and binary forms of discourse that suits the ideology of zero. In safety-as-zero there is no mis-fortune there is only ‘safety is a choice you make’ locking in discourse of: wilful error, shameful indolence, wrong habits, laziness, ‘backward’ and chosen misery.

When culture is defined as behaviours, this too encourages individual responsibility for what goes wrong. Find the offender and get them sacked.

‘Safety as a choice you make’ is founded on the notion that safety is an individual responsibility NOT a cultural determinant. Without a social psychological lens, we are most likely to see safety, resilience, justice or ‘ethical responsibility’ as an individual activity. Indeed, if you go back to the declares purpose of the text it makes ethics a ‘personal capability’ not a collective capability. No wonder resilience is all about ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’.

Unfortunately, the industry is great at throwing around terms like ‘ethical responsibility’ or the ‘essence of ethics’ without discussing/defining what is meant, including no discussion about any of the critical essentials in ethics. In the end the message that comes through is, ‘you’re on your own baby!’



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