Do OHS Professionals Act As Moral Agents?

moral agents

Occupational Health and Safety Professionals are required to draw on their ethics to make life-threatening decisions and act as ‘moral’ agents in their role. This is a particularly difficult task given they are bound by legal obligations to ensure a safe workplace and eliminate risk as far as reasonably practicable and at the same time support their company to ensure productivity and profit. Indeed the International Network of Safety and Health Practitioner Organisations (INSHPO) describes their role as one that

…advises and supports management in its overall task of managing risks to prevent or mitigate work-related fatalities, injuries and illnesses… fully integrating the management of OHS risk into sustainable business practice at all levels.

And as such, they need to behave ethically, morally and professionally. Each day their personal ethics intersect with business ethics that encompass the moral rules that govern how the company operates. OHS professionals need to navigate issues with their employer, their fellow workers, legal institutions (courts), insurers, regulators and the community. They must deal with competence, and conflicts of interest, and adhere to honesty, respect and other values.  Also, they must have the courage to speak up when ethics are compromised.

This article summarises a chapter from the Body of Knowledge on Ethics and Professional Practice. We look at the legal obligations of the OHS professional, how they may act as a moral agent and the obstacles to ethical-decision-making. We finish with nine areas to consider when speaking up about OHS concerns to keep the discussion constructive.

Legal Obligations

All organisations are bound by law to provide a safe workplace. The law sets a minimum, mandatory standard imposed by an external agency, with penalties for breaking the rules. Laws and ethics are different. Ethics are guidelines that assist in decisions about how to behave. While ethics may be guided by external codes, they are internally based and applied more broadly. The law requires interpretation and this requires the application of ethics.

The core activity of the OHS professional is to provide advice on the health and safety of workers and others impacted by the work to ensure their safety so far as is reasonably practicable. However, while the OHS professional strives to be objective, personal bias and values will always result in an element of subjectivity. They have their attitudes and beliefs about what is right or wrong that influence ethical considerations and moral dilemmas as they comply with the law. Fortunately, ethical decision-making allows for more flexible and context-sensitivity than the blunt instrument of the law.

See our article, Do You Meet Your OHS Obligations?

Moral Agent

Individuals who can be held accountable for their moral actions are ‘moral agents.’ A moral agent is

a person who makes a moral decision, even though he or she may not recognise that moral issues are at stake.

OHS professionals are moral agents; they are expected to comply with legal obligations and to be ethical. In everyday practice, they are personally and professionally responsible for their judgements and actions in tackling ethical choices and dilemmas, in their prioritisation of activities, in what they draw attention to, and in the advice they give. This applies irrespective of whether they recognise the moral issues in their actions.

Code of Conduct and Ethical Challenges

Commitment to a code of ethics is part of being a member of a profession; however, following the code may, in some cases, present difficulties or dilemmas. All professionals face ethical challenges as part of their everyday practice, and OHS professionals have some challenges that are unique to their role.

As moral agents, there are four areas of potential ethical challenge in OHS practice:

  1. Technical competence
  2. Reconciling risk
  3. Managing conflicts
  4. Managing information

Technical Competence

Ideally, OHS professionals should limit themselves to areas in which they have competence, where competence is based on knowledge, skills and experience. However, OHS professionals have a variety of backgrounds and experience. Their roles may vary in different organisations, within a single organisation and according to the OHS maturity of an organisation. Moreover, different individuals may have varying views on their role and status.

OHS professionals will likely need access to support and mentoring to enable compliance with the understanding and competence of ethical practice. Most importantly, they must be aware that standards and legal and practical requirements are constantly changing. As moral agents, ethical professionals should be diligent in reflecting on the currency of their knowledge and skills to develop self-directed, structured development activities to address any gaps or areas that require enhancement.

Where personal ethics come to the fore is the area of professional résumés and representation where they may have an element of ‘imaginative’ marketing of abilities. Ethical professionals should demonstrate their integrity and honesty in how they represent themselves professionally, including how they present their qualifications, certification, experience, expertise, achievements and capabilities.

Reconciling Risk

As an OHS professional you will make risk-related decisions and they will always have an ethical aspect as such decisions are made about situations where injury and ill health are possible and the decision-maker is not necessarily the same person as the at-risk person. Where it gets even more complicated is when those who are at risk are not personally known to the decision-maker.

When we estimate the level of risk we consider the severity of the consequence and the likelihood of that consequence occurring. However, estimating risk is fraught with uncertainty because it:

  • Does not consider the uncertainty in the estimates of consequence and likelihood
  • Assumes a single statement of consequence and likelihood can represent a risk
  • Assumes that likelihood and consequence are of equal importance and are combined in a single product
  • Does not take account of the difficulty people have in comprehending risk, especially for low likelihoods
  • Assumes that a specified consequence has a unique value that is the same for all people.

Such uncertainty leaves the OHS professional open to pressure from a range of sources to modify a risk assessment to achieve a specific outcome.

The key role of the OHS professional is to provide advice and support to ensure the health and safety of workers and others who may be impacted by the work so far as is reasonably practicable. What is reasonably practicable has two elements – what can be done and whether it is reasonable to do less (and if so, what) than that which will achieve the highest level of protection that is possible. Determining what is reasonably practicable is often governed by cost and therefore has an ethical element. As moral agents, the OHS professional needs to reconcile the risk of injury against the cost.

See our article, Preventing Workplace Injuries and Controlling Risk.

Managing Conflicts

Honesty, integrity, objectivity, impartiality and independence are core professional values and generally cited in OHS codes of ethics. However, OHS professionals have particular challenges managing conflicts and priorities as they have responsibilities to several stakeholders including:

  • The organisation employing/remunerating them – OHS professionals have a basic obligation to do what they were hired to do. But what are the organisations priorities? Is it the priorities of the CEO, line management, the board or shareholders?
  • Workers for whose safety they are advising and advocating – The focus of OHS is the health and safety of workers, and we can assume that the OHS professional has a primary duty to workers, and to advocate for workers. However, what is the obligation of the OHS professional, for example, if a manager blocks information to their workers on hazards?
  • Members of the public who may be impacted by the advice they give – Public safety is usually considered to be part of the OHS professional’s scope of practice. How might an OHS professional prioritise the safety of the public while meeting obligations to other stakeholder groups?
  • Other professionals and the profession in general, including their professional body – OHS professionals should treat other professionals with ‘professional courtesy,’ that is, with respect, valuing others’ time in terms of scheduling and appointments, extending trust and assistance and, within the limits of confidentiality, sharing relevant information.

These duties apply concurrently and may conflict, to create ethical dilemmas.

As moral agents, do OHS professionals have a primary duty to any one party or should the focus be squarely on managing responsibilities to multiple stakeholders?

Managing Information

OHS professionals have access to a range of information that may be subject to confidentiality and privacy requirements. The types of information include:

  • Medical information and personal details of individuals
  • Non-OHS information (trade secrets, confidential business information, etc.)
  • OHS information.

OHS legislation generally includes the worker’s right to know of matters impacting their health and safety. This legal duty to tell workers eliminates the ethical question of confidentiality.

When OHS professionals are called upon to make a public statement, they have a professional obligation, to be honest, and objective and to stay within the bounds of their areas of expertise. For example, they could be a regulator, an educator presenting at a conference or a company spokesperson in a time of crisis. As moral agents, where facts are not known, and assumptions are being made, these assumptions should be made clear. Also, if the OHS professional does not have personal competence in the subject matter, but is referring to the opinion of a more specialised expert, that reference must be made clear.

See our article, How to Make Your WHS Reporting Relevant to Different Audiences.

Speaking Up

The primary role of OHS professionals is seen as challenging assumptions, priorities and actions of management as they impact on the health and safety of workers and others, and having an ethical responsibility to speak up when they see the need. This responsibility to speak up is relevant, for example, where an OHS professional may be under pressure to ‘adjust’ a risk assessment, to ‘modify’ a report to the regulator, to reconsider based on the economic climate (and perhaps the impact on people’s jobs), or to be a good (management) team player.

It’s important, as moral agents, that when they do speak up that they do so in a constructive manner. There are nine guiding principles that the OHS professional can draw on when speaking up:

1. Accept that ethical issues or conflict in values will occur as part of professional practice and so you need strategies to deal with such conflict.
2. Effectively managing a conflict in values is not about fighting or preaching, but about influence.
3. Don’t try to change people, focus on the situation and how you can influence and reshape the situation.
4. While there will be differences in goals, values and possibly cultures, identify shared values, goals and common ground.
5. Rather than condemning people or actions, or setting rules, propose options for action leaving open the opportunity for others to expand on or modify options.
6. Anticipate typical rationalisations for ethically questionable behaviour and identify counterarguments.
7. Practice is required to build the confidence to speak up in an influential way. A mentor can help in developing such confidence. Develop a script.
8. Identify enablers and disablers to speaking up with influence. Enablers may be personal and different for different people and may be specific to the situation.
9. Accept that action is not without risk, but that risk needs to be weighed against the risk of not speaking up. It is not about whether to speak up, but how.

See our Leaders and Managers courses to help you effectively communicate, actively listen, resolve conflict and develop your leadership skills. All courses use a microlearning delivery together with a short assessment and build on one concept at a time. They can be completed online or on your mobile device at your own pace.

To Summarise

This article looks at the role of the OHS professional as a moral agent when they make life-threatening decisions and represent their employers and other stakeholders. The key role of the OHS professional is to provide advice and support to ensure the health and safety of workers and others who may be impacted by the work so far as is reasonably practicable.

In everyday practice, the OHS professional is personally and professionally responsible for their judgements and actions in tackling ethical choices and dilemmas, in their prioritisation of activities, in what they draw attention to, and in the advice they give. They need technical competence in OHS matters, to reconcile risk-related decisions, to manage conflict and confidential information. Finally, they need to be confident to speak up to challenge the assumptions, priorities and actions of management as they impact the health and safety of workers and others.

This article is also available on the Tap into Safety Podcast.

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