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Doing the Right Thing: Linking Safety, Ethics and Economic Prosperity

Striving to “do the right thing” can help safety professionals create sustainable safety programs that also have a positive impact on a company’s economic health.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania Safety Sciences professor Jan Wachter, Ph.D., stressed that safety professionals must go beyond regulatory compliance and consider ethics in order to build successful safety programs that also boost the bottom line. While laws and regulations inform individuals what they cannot do, ethics instruct individuals and organizations as to what they should do, Wachter said.

In other words, ethics are about doing the right thing, not about simply avoiding the wrong thing.

Wachter supports a “safety management systems approach” in the workplace, which recognizes that unsafe acts, unsafe conditions and accidents are symptoms of problems in the organizational management system. In this philosophy, senior management ultimately is responsible for building an ethical system that effectively can analyze and control workplace hazards. This means that safety is no longer a “sunk cost,” but an integral function of doing business, just like quality.

“Perhaps the greatest economic reason to support an ethics-based approach to safety management within a capitalistic system is that prosperity generates an environment where continuing improvement and reduced risk are affordable,” said Wachter.

According to Wachter, safety professionals must promote a more ethical approach to managing their own profession. This strategy requires moral courage, conviction and professional unity, including a bottom-up approach at their worksites and through professional organizations, and understanding the need to look out for workers and the public despite culture, pressure and misdirection from management and peers.

Wachter’s current research includes a project focusing on worker engagement in the safety process as a tool for human-error reduction.

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