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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Ethically speaking

Facing ethical challenges is part of being an OHS consultant.

PHIL SEXTON says the profession must put its ethical house in order.

Most people who enter the health and safety profession do so to help others. What nobler way of aiding your fellow man than to help them preserve their quality of life? Let’s face it, not many of us entered OHS for the money! This collective motivation tends to self-regulate our ethical behaviour, because to provide anything but useful advice and resources would be contradictory to our goal of harm prevention.

Health and safety is now squarely in the public eye and has highlighted the need for employers to manage it effectively. Some predict an increase in demand for safety practitioners and doubt the existing pool of consultants will be able to meet this need. Following supply and demand, rates for OHS consulting could rise. This would be a good thing for us independent practitioners, but it could also attract those who identify an opportunity to make money but who might not necessarily have the same level of ethical motivation.

Some years ago a comparable environment developed in the residential construction sector. Most residential builders did little or nothing about OHS, even though many realised they should have something in place to prevent them being “pinged” after the inevitable accident. The advice and resources offered by the scrupulous majority of the health and safety sector was on the whole rejected as being OTT.

As a result, a number of companies sprang up and claimed they could take away a builder’s OHS headache by simply supplying generic safety documentation and statements, and “managing” their clients’ responsibilities remotely. In effect, the client had to do nothing but pay the annual fee and make sure the glossy folder was on site in order to attain the prosecution-avoiding compliance they sought. This approach has not (to date) been endorsed by any ethical safety practitioner or organisation, but obviously was highly attractive to builders seeking the illusion of compliance.

With the vast potential market on offer, the snake oil sellers employed increasingly hard marketing techniques, with claims such as “you will be prosecuted if you don”t sign with us’ and “as a client of ours, you are automatically entitled to an ACC discount”. Many OHS practitioners expected that sooner or later a prosecution would result from this highly negligent approach and the snake oil sellers would be exposed. In the meantime, builders embraced the magic bullet solution, trade organisations endorsed it, and many chain builder principals actually stipulated it for their sites.

Going unchecked by the authorities – or is it endorsement through inaction? – the smoke screen approach gained a firm foothold in the market, to the detriment of many scrupulous safety practitioners, who realised they were fighting a losing battle in providing advice and resources based on safe behaviour rather than ceremonial compliance. Then again, in a wholly unregulated profession, commercial success is often based on how well you spin your services, rather than how good your services actually are.

For me, this has raised the issue of what is actually an ethical level of consultancy support for a client. The provision of resources as a means of compliance clearly stretches the definition of “all practicable steps” to the extreme, but as consultants, what level of immersion in the client’s operation should we be insisting on to be deemed as working ethically? Some consultants state that they will not work with clients unless they are able to gain a full understanding of their operation and processes in order to formulate tailored advice and resources, and to be given the remit of an ongoing working relationship in order to monitor and review performance down the line. Although professionally ethical, is it practical to assume so much responsibility with regards to ensuring that a client follows the advice given or fully utilises the resources provided?

Recently I was called to investigate a serious harm accident for a client. The whole basis of why they had called me in was made apparent by the client’s first words to me at the gate. “It was a freak accident, nobody could’ve done anything”. I realised the client’s objective may differ from mine, but also appreciated that here was a situation which tested my ethics against the apparent goal of the client and the chances of securing future work.

The question of ethics centres on striking a balance between achieving the client’s objectives (inevitably that will sometimes be to avoid prosecution after the fact) and implementing initiatives and systems that we as knowledgeable and competent consultants believe will help prevent harm.

To be considered a true profession, the application of ethics might need to be governed by an overarching health and safety professional body, to lessen abuse in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.


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