A discussion on ethics and OHS decision making

In 2004, I was asked to make an OHS-themed presentation to a group of paramedic students on ethics and from a small business perspective.  Some of the information may have dated slightly but I post this to stimulate discussion.  Below is an edited version of that 2004 oral presentation:

Quite often, when we have an ethical dilemma, “should I do this or should I do that?” we often go away somewhere to think.  In the short term, you “sleep on it” and when you wake you may have a solution or, at least, a different perspective on the problem.  Often we try to clarify our perspective.  I don’t know many people whose job it is to develop ethical statements or programs who sit at a table and talk about ethics.  More often, we go away and think about the issue and then come back and discuss, compare and refine our problem.  We frequently do this with our colleagues and by using our social network.

For an example, recently a colleague asked for me to sign off on a safety manual for some Australian contractors who are installing equipment for an American company in Australia.  It is one thing to deal with companies in your native country but dealing with overseas companies is very different.  With local companies you can solve problems by meeting with the Manager or CEO but when it is an American company, from such a litigious society, how should a small business proceed?  Should I accept the contract?  Is the risk worth the money?  I am not sure.

One of the positions taken by some in those circumstances is to take the money and run.  You try to reduce your exposure through disclaimers and professional indemnity insurance.  We do have those things but like with all insurances you don’t want to use it.  You may be able to fund the claim against you but the process associated with this claim and compensation could tear your small business apart.  I don’t believe that professional indemnity insurance is the answer.

If you need clarification on topics and issues, you start with an encyclopaedia (increasingly Wikipedia as a gateway to other relevant information).  In everyday parlance Ethics and Morality are interchangeable terms.  If you were a philosopher, it would be important to note that ethics does not refer to morality but to the study of morality.  That can be a very useful split but when I think about ethics, I think of ethical businesses, corporate social responsibility, and ethical corporations.  Why aren’t there moral corporations?  We don’t use the word morals or morality enough.  Ethics may exist in policies on the wall at the Reception Desk but it may not be something you see as relevant to your everyday activities.

The University of San Diego has an excellent ethics site.  I have taken this list from one of the presentations on that site.

“Do what the Bible tells you”–Divine Command Theories

“Follow your conscience”–The Ethics of Conscience

“Watch out for #1”–Ethical Egoism

“Do the right thing”–The Ethics of Duty

“Don’t dis’ me”–The Ethics of Respect

“…all Men are created …with certain unalienable Rights”–The Ethics of Rights

“Make the world a better place”–Utilitarianism

“Daddy, that’s not fair”–The Ethics of Justice

“Be a good person”–Virtue Ethics

You can’t make a rounded moral decision on just one of those when you go through your life and your work, these are some of the reference points for your decision making.

There is a Safety way of making decisions.  In all of the WorkSafe publications, the way to improve safety is to


Assess, and


Identify the hazard, assess the severity of the risk and control the risk.  To some extent that is a really good framework for moral decisions too.  Identify the problem, assess it.  How serious is it? Can I forget about it?  Do I need to tackle the problem?  Can I outsource it to Mum or someone else?  And how do I control it?  It’s a nice three stage process for resolving problems.  OHS authorities promote this process as it is readily understandable.  They are also paraphrasing into Find, Assess, Fix.

Codes of Conduct, Mission Statements, Codes of Ethics, by and large these terms are also interchangeable.  I am sure that an English professor can identify the technical differences but functionally they are the same.  This Code of Conduct is taken from an Australian Government Department and I show this as an example of how complex a code of ethics can be.

  • behave honestly and with integrity;
  • act with care and diligence;
  • treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment;
  • comply with all applicable Australian laws;
  • comply with any lawful and reasonable direction given by someone who has authority to give the direction;
  • maintain appropriate confidentiality;
  • disclose, and take reasonable steps to avoid, any conflict of interest (real or apparent);
  • use company resources in a proper manner;
  • not provide false or misleading information in response to a request for information;
  • not make improper use of:
  • while on duty overseas, at all times behave in a way that upholds the good reputation of Australia……
  • at all times behave in a way that upholds integrity and good reputation of the company;

Look at the amount of behaviours it is referring to:

behave honestly and with integrity;

act with care and diligence;

treat everyone with respect and courtesy, and without harassment;

comply with all applicable Australian laws;

comply with any lawful and reasonable direction given by someone who has authority to give the direction;

maintain appropriate confidentiality;

disclose, and take reasonable steps to avoid, any conflict of interest (real or apparent);

One of my first jobs in my late teens was working in the Passports Office, interviewing people and issuing passports.  It probably generated my first ethical dilemma.  A Travel Agent thanked me for processing his passport application by giving me $50 and, incongruously, a chocolate bar.  I went to my Supervisor and asked what I should do?  I was so conscious that this could be seen as graft and corruption, even though the gesture was a genuine expression of thanks.  My Supervisor said that the $50 goes into the Christmas Fund and we split the chocolate bar.  He resolved the ethical dilemma, at least to the satisfaction of a 19 year old public servant.  The chocolate ethical dilemma.

Another point in the code of conduct above is

use company resources in a proper manner;

Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows that at home you are never out of pens, erasers or photocopy paper.  Do you think you would get pulled up on the Code of Conduct if someone came to your house and saw a ream of photocopy paper?  Probably not… but you could.

You could find clear indications of breaches of these elements of this Code of Conduct if you were too look and not look too hard, on the political scandals over the last 30 years.

Another element could cause real problems – “at all times behave in a way that upholds integrity and good reputation of the company”.  What happens if your company has a crap reputation?

This is a general Code of Conduct but it is a good example of how involved some Codes can be.

We have legislation now in Australia that protects “whistleblowers”.  A whistleblower is a person who has purposely chosen to breach a Code of Conduct, isn’t it?  We provide Codes on Conduct for people to operate within and then we also allow for legislation that protects people who breach the Code.  The status relates to the reason for breaching the Code of Conduct.  Who would want to be a whistleblower?  And who would want to handle that in an organisation?  You would need to be well-grounded in your ethical obligations.

This was the Code of Conduct for the Safety Institute of Australia in 2004.

  • Members will give priority to the health, safety and welfare of the community in accordance with accepted standards of moral and legal behaviour during the performance of their professional duties
  • Members will perform their professional duties with integrity, honesty and equity while adhering to legal principles and being within their area of competency
  • Members will perform their professional duties with integrity, honesty and equity while adhering to legal principles and being within their area of competency
  • Members will not engage in any illegal or improper practice
  • Members words or deeds must not adversely affect the reputation of the Institute or the professional reputation of another person

This Code is a bit thin in comparison to the previous example but it can be quite powerful.

A Code of Conduct must be an operational document that you use and with which you are familiar.  You don’t have to have it imprinted on your brain but it needs to be something that is accessible and useable because they expect you to apply that Code of Conduct in everyone of the your decisions in your working life.

It is similar to the first example in terms of integrity honesty, etc.  All Codes of Conduct will have similar elements.  You could almost have a pro-forma Code of Conduct but the problem with any pro-forma is that they are signed and disappear, like safety checklists.  The pro-forma speeds the process but it also devalues the process.

In terms of workplace safety, there are some things that are immoral.  I have used that term specifically instead of unethical.  I was trying to think of examples of immorality in relation to safety and I identified several safety-related issues that I think show an immorality.

The first is Asbestos.  Asbestos generated a huge industry.  It was a miracle mineral fibre.  There is nothing immoral about the substance.  It was found to be harmful but there is nothing immoral in that.  In my opinion immorality appears when it kept being produced and sold and the companies knew the substance was harmful but chose not to share that information with their workers, clients and the community.  I would suggest that the handling of the Asbestos issue was an example of immoral behaviour.

Smoking.  The smokers here all know that smoking can kill you.  You might not accept the fact but you have been told it can kill you.  You make a moral choice to keep smoking, for whatever reason, taste, fashion addiction, whatever.  The immorality of smoking in the workplace comes up in the context of second hand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke.  Your smoke exhalation is being sucked in by a work mate.

For a while I worked in industrial relations.  It was the time when in depth negotiations on pay and conditions occurred in small rooms with a smoky haze about four feet off the floor.  You could see each other when you were sitting down but when you stood visibility was foggy and you began to cough your lungs out.  Industrial negotiations now occur 10 metres outside the buildings.  If you want to meet important people in an office, hang around the smoking area and they will turn up every hour or so.

Workplaces that do allow smoking are the Casino, prisons and brothels.  Recently there was an industrial issue between the Prisons’ management and the unions on pay and conditions.  One of the issues raised was the need for prison officers to work in a smokefree environment.  How can you stop prisoners from smoking cigarettes when cigarettes are a type of currency?  Prisoners receive gifts of cigarettes from their family and visitors.

There is a stereotype of a person having had sexual intercourse, lighting up a cigarette.  In the licensed brothels in Victoria, this stereotype is real.  Some of the brothels have had smoking problems where the used cigarette butts have ignited the tissues in the waste paper baskets in rooms.

If you were a manager of a nightclub where at 3am there is loud music, flashing lights and the bar staff are constantly inhaling cigarette smoke.  How is a manager of a pub or nightclub supposed to provide a safe and healthy work environment?  Ireland and New York have smoking bans in hospitality and restaurant areas.  These bans have substantially affected the short-term economics of running these businesses.  The best control measure for the safety of workers may be a decision that substantially affects the economic viability of the business.  That is a hard decision for a business operator to make.

Fibreglass insulation was a common DIY project in the 1970s, it still is but with a very different way of handling it.  Originally, fibreglass was seen almost as an innocuous substance, now fibreglass is one of the synthetic mineral fibres that is causing health problems.  The PPE required for handling this substance now is a revolution from the original process.

Many cases of work processes, objects and substances have been found to be harmful after many years of use.  How do we fit the use of these things with our “moral consciences?”

I think psycho-social hazards will be a huge OHS management problem in the years to come.  Stress, bullying, work overload, are real workplace hazards but how we handle the issues determines the morality of the matter.  Safety people are comfortable with putting guards on machines, safety boots, infection control goggles, and other types of barriers.  But with psycho-social hazards there is no physical barrier.  A worker may put in a workers’ compensation claim because the working hours, the shifts have created an occupational hazard.  How do we deal with the hazards that are generated by the interaction of people?

Some of the OHS inspectors are handling nothing but bullying claims.  It is not as if there is an Australian Standard on treating people appropriately.  Our social interactions stem from our personal values and the organisational expectations and culture.  We need to treat each other with respect.  Now the OHS authorities have to cope with safety hazards from personal relationships.

The safety industry is investigating polite and contemporary ways to motivate people to perform in a safe manner without being confrontational and combative.  It looks at safety incentives, rewards, and organisational change.  The morality of the workplace is also the morality of the general society.  How do we talk with each other?  How do we treat them with respect?

A couple of years ago a study was undertaken on data from the Coronial database that identified that around 6% of suicides are work-related from stress and other psycho-social hazards.  There is data that shows people are committing suicide because they cannot cope with work.  Keeping this sort of information active in the safety industry is the best way of having people acknowledge the validity of psycho-social hazards.

Hazardous Substances.  Several years ago Regulations were released that required workplaces to investigate the harmfulness of all of the substances in, or generated, by the workplace.  There was a flood of request for Material Safety Data Sheets on correction fluid, white board markers, domestic detergents, a whole range of “innocuous” chemicals.  The Regulations caused people to think about the “common or garden” chemicals they use at work in a safety/risk context.

The buzzword in the safety profession at the moment is Safety Culture.  The culture of workplaces has changed greatly in the last couple of decades.  The cultures now reflect contemporary values.  A Safety Culture is the incorporation of morality, humanity and accountability into our safety decisions across all levels of management and operations.  The most effective safety cultures are those that build on existing social values and beliefs rather than imposing a culture, particularly one imported from overseas or the latest business management bestseller.

Workplace safety should not be divorced from non-workplace safety as workers inhabit both worlds.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories business, ethics, OHS, risk, safety, small business, UncategorizedTags , ,

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