The practice of safety has a definite ethical component. Often, the most ethical actions to take are obvious, such as the choice between a legal action and an illegal one. Other times, there are many considerations that may cloud decision-making. Typically, we are trying to optimize several parameters at the same time, and one of the parameters is “Does the work get done and do we all stay employed?” Ask a safety person about professional ethics and codes of conduct and each will claim to be the beacon for professionalism. However, many don’t fully understand what it means to behave ethically and what the true standards are for professional conduct. Safety practitioners need to take stock, understand the codes of conduct and be prepared to defend themselves as professionally ethical.
Ethics could be simply described as “applied morals.” Moral conduct is about agreeing with a standard of good behavior and being able to choose between right and wrong. It shouldn’t be difficult, but as Mark Twain so famously said, “It is curious—curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” In an ever-changing and sometimes scandal-ridden professional landscape, the value of doing the right thing is sometimes overridden by the ambition of getting ahead. This is where the practice of professional ethics is supposed to come into play.
Safety is still an emerging discipline, and it remains at best a quasi-profession. As part of advancing the profession, we do need to sort out the standard of professional ethics and codes of conduct because a new profession is often under greater scrutiny. It is critical that we practice transparent, professional ethics and promote standards of behavior that support and enhance the safety profession. As a cohort of professionals, we need to establish the standard, communicate it, adhere to it, and ensure accountability. Adhering to professional ethics not only will make for a more professional occupational health and safety (OHS) practitioner, but it will make for a more dependable and respected landscape for all OHS professionals.
Ethics are not black or white. You can’t just seek “white” because sometimes the only acceptable answer is a light shade of gray. Sometimes your shade of gray may be thought of by others as unethical, and you may be accused of being so. It seems that accusing someone for being unethical makes the accuser feel more personally ethical. But accusers often do so because of a lack of confidence—and likely competence—about the matter and the issue of professional conduct altogether.
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