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Q&A: The Professional Ethics of Workplace Safety and Health

Oct 24, 2023
Safety professional shaking hands with a factory worker

We’re all faced with ethical dilemmas in our personal and professional lives. In the safety profession, these dilemmas can arise from factors within an organization, as well as external pressures such as regulatory compliance.

Education around ethics is so important that it is now a core requirement for maintaining several safety credentials, including the Certified Safety Professional (CSP) designation.

Director-at-Large Daniel Snyder, Ed.D., CSP, CHST, OHST, CIT, teaches our “Ethics for OSH Professionals” course. He joined “The Case for Safety Podcast” and spoke with host Scott Fowler about dilemmas safety professionals face, and how you can apply ethics to your decision making.

Fowler: How do you define ethics?

Snyder: First, you have to look at ideas of morality. A lot of people interchange the words “morality” and “ethics,” and for all practical purposes, we're talking about the same thing. Morality deals in philosophy and making choices with reason. The whole idea is looking at the choices we make and the reasons we make those choices.

In safety, we have a fairly well-established code of conduct that's enforceable in our profession. We hold ourselves accountable in that way.

But ethics is framed within the context of occupational realities. Your company, area of the world, products — all of those contexts come into how you will apply your trade ethically with the people you serve.

Fowler: What are the most important things safety professionals need to remember about professional ethics and the role it plays in their decision making?

Snyder: Integrity, honesty, competency and capacity are common themes. What is your competency? What is your knowledge base? For example, I may be competent enough to write safety curriculum, but do I have the capacity? It would not be ethical to tell someone you can do something without any consideration for your capacity or competency to do it.

Ideas of loyalty or fidelity to the profession are all parts of these common themes. Loyalty to the community of practice, the people we serve, the workers, the employer and ourselves. One issue we struggle with a lot is what's just and what's fair, and to whom.

Is it just and fair to the company to make profitability a priority, and what is the trade off for that? For example, if we're going to work people 12-hour days, seven days a week on high-hazard jobs, how long can we do that? I understand there are things we have to get done, but at the end of the day, can we look at that and knowingly accept the risk? We have to consider capacity and what's right for workers.

That’s where we can serve as moral agents. I think to be a good safety and health professional, you have to have empathy, compassion and benevolence toward those in your organization. Can you show empathy for a supervisor and all the things on their plate? Can you show compassion for upper managers with competing priorities and pressures? Can you show compassion for workers who have to wear PPE all day long in the hot sun? Consider those realitites and show compassion for the people you serve.

Fowler: What are some common ethical dilemmas that safety professionals might encounter?

Snyder: There are systemic, external forces that challenge how we operate. One of the common dilemmas that we find in research and practice is plagiarism. There's nefarious plagiarism, which is purposeful and harmful. There’s innocuous plagiarism as well, where you distribute other people's work in an effort to communicate best practices and people assume it is yours.

Another issue is falsifying data. That's probably going to be your biggest legal problem, especially if that data is submitted to the government.  That is one of the biggest challenges we have right now, particularly in construction, because construction companies have to have a certain injury rate or they can't bid. It's really driving pressure on companies and safety professionals. I'm not going to go as far as to say they falsify data, but the pressure creates an untenable situation.

Fowler: When faced with dilemmas, how should safety professionals apply ethics to their decision making?  

Snyder: Ideally, you come to a solution or a resolution that will be a best case scenario for everyone. You have to figure out what the motivators are and what factors might affect a certain situation. There's a seven-step process professionals can use to guide their ethical decision making:

  • Awareness: Identifying that there is an ethical issue or a potential conflict of interest
  • Reason: Collecting information, developing solutions and framing the problem
  • Judgement: Developing and analyzing alternatives
  • Decision: Selecting the best possible solution, justifying the choice with rational thought and defending that position
  • Action: Developing initiatives and procedures for implementation
  • Outcomes: Evaluating the consequences of your decisions and actions
  • Reflection: Developing preventative strategies so you don't encounter the same dilemma in the future.

I’ll also refer to the reasonable peer doctrine, which I think is critically important for us as professionals. When faced with an ethical dilemma, it can be helpful to talk with somone that is impartial and has no attachment to the situation. This should be a caring professional that you trust and who is going to be empathetic because they have the professional knowledge. Then, as you describe your dilemma, they can put themselves in your shoes.

Fowler: How do knowledge and wisdom factor into ethical decision making for safety professionals?

Snyder: Knowledge is what you know and wisdom is how you use it. Everyone has their own truth and it's based on their own knowledge, their background and their own interpretation of the world. So knowledge in itself is sometimes fallible and and it can provide a false sense of security.

Wisdom is mindfully applied knowledge. To me, that is the difference between knowing something and being wise in your actions.

Fowler: Anything else you’d like to add?

Snyder: Expand your mind about ethics, how you view it and how you integrate it. Look at codes of conduct and ethical principles. Reflect on them, reflect on case studies in your world and think about  how well the decision was made and how you came to your judgment.


Promote Ethical Practices in Safety

It’s important to understand how codes of professional ethics apply to you as a safety leader. This course introduces best practices for resolving ethical issues and is designed to meet the ethics training requirements of certifying bodies.

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