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What Are Professional Ethics and How Do They Apply to Safety?

Jul 02, 2024
Closeup of a smiling safety professional man with a beard

As consumers increasingly say they care about the ethics of the organizations they buy from, work with and live near, the professional ethics of those who work for those organizations become all the more important.

Safety professional associations are following suit, emphasizing professional ethics and expanding their codes of ethics and education requirements on the topic.

But understanding professional ethics and applying them to your organization and day-to-day work is more complicated than pledging to uphold a code. To help safety professionals explore this important issue, our Management Practice Specialty invited Wyatt Bradbury, MEng, CSP, CHST, CIT, HSE area manager for Hitachi Rail and adjunct ethics professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, to address “Professional Ethics for the Safety Leader.”

What Are Professional Ethics for Safety Professionals?

Bradbury defines ethics broadly as a mutually agreed-upon set of principles held by an individual or group that serves as the basis for situational reasoning and conduct.

Professional ethics are standards set by a group meeting the definition of a profession that apply to how they will practice, a definition put forth by professional ethics expert Michael Davis.

Bradbury breaks this down:

  • “A group meeting the definition of a profession:” A profession is a group of workers who have a greater duty of responsibility to the public and a higher degree of specialty, qualification or certification, such as doctors, lawyers or safety professionals.
  • “Standards . . . that apply to how they will practice:” These professionals set the ethical standards that apply to those within the profession and obligate them to follow. Professional ethics are one way professions distinguish themselves and establish relationships with their constituencies, Bradbury says.

How Safety Professionals Can Apply Professional Ethics to Their Organizations

Safety professionals carry their professional ethics with them when entering any new organization. Those ethics may fold into an organization’s code of ethics, or they may conflict with the code. Because an organization’s code of ethics encompasses the many different professionals who work for it, the code may not adhere exactly to the safety professional’s code of ethics.

The best way to ensure your professional ethics harmonize with your organization’s ethics is to provide input into the code, Bradbury says.

When conflicts do arise between professional and organizational ethics, Bradbury recommends looking to the “creative middle way” or identifying an innovative compromise that meets all the competing objectives in the best possible manner.

He also recommends ensuring the code of ethics is principle-based, rather than rule-based.

“We like rules because we think they’re simple,” he says. “But every time you show me a rule, I’ll show you a workaround, leading to more and more rules. Ethics should be written in a principle-based manner so they can be adapted to different situations.”

Rules are best reserved for a code of conduct, which can address action-based issues such as the way workers communicate or dress.

Questions on Professional Ethics for the Safety Professional

Applying your professional ethics to your daily work requires a willingness to question and rethink assumptions. Bradbury’s goal when discussing ethics is to leave safety professionals with more questions than answers, so he shares some concepts to help spur those kinds of questions.

Are You Making the Fundamental Attribution Error?

Most people think they are “good drivers,” but consider many others who share the road “bad drivers.” When you do something wrong, like run a stop sign, you might attribute it to an outside factor — for example, perhaps an overgrown tree blocked the sign. But if you witness another driver doing the same thing, you might attribute it to their bad driving — how did that driver not see the stop sign?

This is an example of the fundamental attribution error. We overestimate our abilities and attribute our failings to external, systemic or circumstantial factors while underestimating others’ abilities and attributing their failings to personal factors.

When completing an incident report, safety professionals acting ethically should check themselves for this internal bias, Bradbury says.

Does Your Organization Have a “Value of a Statistical Life” and Is That Ethical?

The value of a statistical life (VSL) is a computation done by government agencies such as the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration to understand the impact of new regulations.

Suppose a food safety regulation reduces the annual risk of dying from a foodborne illness by 0.0001 in a population of 100,000. This means one less death from foodborne illness per year. If the cost of that regulation is about $20 per person per year, the cost of the annual risk reduction is $2 million, which is the value of a statistical life. Different agencies set different VSLs or VSL ranges to help them determine if a regulation should be enacted.

Safety professionals engage in some form of this computation all the time by completing risk matrices, cost-benefit analysis or even determining acceptable risk. Does your organization have its own kind of VSL and is that ethical? If not, is there an alternative? If we can’t eliminate risk — which most safety professionals accept as reality — who should bear that risk? Can it be spread in some way across the organization?

Has Your Organization “Normalized Deviance?”

Over time, organizations may naturally start to enlarge their boundaries of acceptable risk, shifting the burden of proof from proving a situation is safe to proving that it is unsafe, a harder thing to prove. This is called normalized deviance. Organizations that operate successfully without major incidents over long periods are especially prone to this phenomenon.

The Space Shuttle Columbia is a vivid example. The Columbia had 27 successful flights, but after each landing, NASA engineers noticed it experienced foam shedding during takeoff, in which pieces of insulating foam broke off the vehicle and impacted it, causing damage. They assumed this was inevitable and either unlikely to jeopardize safety or simply an acceptable risk.

“We’re seeing the foam shedding but it’s not bringing the space shuttle down, so it must be OK,” Bradbury says. The repeated successful launches seemingly proved the shuttle was safe, but the reality was that the foam shedding wasn’t safe and caused fatal damage that led to disintegration upon re-entry during the spacecraft’s final mission.

Are there areas in your organization where normalized deviance has caused safety standards or best practices to deteriorate?

Above all, Bradbury says that safety professionals should take their position as an ethical voice seriously and ask these types of questions.

“Often, we’re the ones who have the final say or can insert ourselves into the process and say, ‘Let’s pause and take a look at this,’” he says. “I don’t mean that we’re ultimately responsible, but we’re the ones with the opportunity, sometimes the only opportunity, to get involved and have a significant impact.”



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