Health and Safety activities and legislation appear to be as old as human industry itself. The Bible advises us to put parapets around our roofs to prevent people falling off (Deut 22:8); what to do in the case of an industrial accident (Deut 19:5); how to avoid food contamination (Lev 11:29-38).
The rules and principles of Health and Safety activity illustrate the distinction between those ethical views that take a consequential or utilitarian view – seeing the overall good of humanity as being the aim of ethical endeavour (Messer 2006, p 84) - and those that are concerned with ethics as being essentially a set of rules or duties (ibid, pp 67 – 68).
It would appear that all activities of this nature should be good – their aim is to protect well-being. However in this essay I will consider whether the protection they bring is double-edged and what the costs of this protection are. I will consider this in the areas of industrial Health and Safety and related activities such as food safety. I will then consider the Christian ethical insight that can be brought into this area.
The legal requirements of Health and Safety
A truly laissez-faire attitude to industry would impose no Health and Safety legislation, and leave it to the Market to resolve. In a theoretically totally free market, nobody would want to work in a dangerous environment. However with the exception of the early days of the Industrial Revolution, industry in the West has been restricted by legislation. The Factory Acts were some of the earliest example of this (Atherton 1992 pp 63-64), while legislation such as the Clean Air Act 1956 reduced the impact of industrial activity on the environment (Weinreb & Hibbert 1993, pp 296-297). In more recent times, major legislation has been the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and subsequent regulations interpreting it, the Food Safety Act 1990 (and its various amendments) and the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. The effect of this last is to make it easier to bring a case of corporate manslaughter against a company, by removing the need to find a “controlling mind” - a difficult thing to establish in a large and complex organisation.
From Consequentialism to Deontology
There is a common pattern in the way that Health and Safety practice evolves from legislation to practice. This is a tendency to move from a consequentialist view of behaviour to an increasingly ontological one. Primary legislation is vague as to detail and to set out general principles – for example the Health and Safety at Work Act 1975 Section 2 states that an employer has the duty to look after the health of its employees, but the Act makes very few recommendations as to how this shall be achieved. Section 6 recommends that equipment be maintained, but gives no details of how (it is quaintly specific with regard to “fairground equipment”, reflecting a common source of injuries at the time). But regulations interpreting the Act require Risk Reviews of activities, and the wearing of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment, for the employer to demonstrate duty of care (HSE 2001). By the time that this is actually realised on the shop floor it becomes a positively Deuteronomic set of regulations:
- If operating lifting equipment you will wear a hard hat.
- If in an environment with mobile handling equipment you will wear safety shoes and a hi-viz vest.
- You shall not, under any circumstances, climb on the racking.
It is fair to say that a business environment does not encourage its shop-floor workers to indulge in a consequentialist approach to Health and Safety. This is left to the “experts” who carry out audits and risk reviews and who then disseminated a set of employee duties. And generally this is wise – it is not a great idea to have a lorry driver or nuclear power station operative experimenting with exciting new ways of using the equipment - it is better that we restrict their creativity and autonomy.
Who is being protected?
The legislation from Deuteronomy nicely illustrates the question as to whom Health and Safety activities are designed to protect: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof; otherwise you might have bloodguilt on your house, if anyone should fall from it.” (Deut 22:8). So it would appear that the parapet is to prevent the house-builder being to blame, rather than to protect any potential victim of falling.
Legislation is generally framed in such a way as to protect the public, employees and customers. However the pragmatic business approach is generally different. Take for example Redsky IT’s Creations food safety application. Creations is a system that manages food contents, and provides assurance through a combination of checking ingredients and reporting on chemical, physical and microbiological testing. Through enforcing rigour in these areas, it ensures the good practice that will reduce the possibility of consumers suffering food poisoning. It also provides the “due diligence” which, when somebody actually is harmed by a food product, is a defence in court (Food Safety Act 1990, Section 21). It is significant therefore that Creations is in fact marketed on the Redsky website as “Brand Protection”. The dangers of criminal liability, and even civil damages are dwarfed by the impact of bad publicity on a brand. This is highlighted by the story of the Ford executives who thought it cheaper to pay damages in court for a limited number of crash victims than it was to redesign the Pinta and recall those that had been sold (Higginson 1997 p 7).
Interestingly, even the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 acts in part to protect employers against their employees – Section 2 puts a requirement on employees that they have a duty of care for themselves and others – thus offering employers a protection in court if, against the company’s own Health and Safety policies, the employee recklessly hurts others or even themselves.
The equation that Risk = Hazard + Outrage (Levitt & Dubner 2005, pp 149-152) is of importance in the behaviour of business with respect to public safety. So a food retailer will take all reasonable steps to avoid giving a limited number of customers a dose of food poisoning – while at the same time selling them cigarettes.
In effect the consequences of applying Health and Safety principles within the West have a double benefit. The business benefits by avoiding criminal and civil action, and not having employees off work and undergoing expensive medical procedures at the expense of health insurance ensures that both employee and shareholders benefit. However when the costs of meeting these requirements become too onerous then others can suffer –as when dirty jobs are exported to countries with lower expectations of employee rights and safety (Gorringe 1994, p 81).
In the attainment of workplace safety, honesty is one of the cardinal virtues – and the need to ensure honesty one of the highest priorities of management. At one workplace I remember a colleague whose head was split open by a frozen beef burger in a “Frisbee” accident appearing in the accident book as “hit head on racking”. So it is easy to imagine situations where management can take a punitive approach to accidents, with a resultant decrease in reported incidents – regardless of what happens to the actual number of incidents. The Health and Safety industry generally uses constructs such as Bird’s Triangle to assess incident occurrence (Hill 2005, 37). On this basis, it is in the interest of the reduction of the actual number of incidents – particularly serious ones - that employees be encouraged to report all incidents – no matter how minor. This will potentially require that the duty to take disciplinary action be subordinated to the duty of honesty in the more general interests of human good.
All human activity has potential risks and potential benefits. At the extreme, we take the risk of harming human “guinea pigs” in order to achieve the benefit of achieving human health through the testing of new drugs. Stobbart et al (2007) comment that sensational reporting swayed the balance of public opinion against the use of humans in drug testing. In the same way, the desire to prevent any accidents ever happening (a deontological approach) will often have the long-term consequences of reducing human happiness. Thus children will be ferried to school in 4x4s to keep them safe (Coughlan, 2007) – despite the resulting greater dangers to them of obesity, unfitness and lack of self-reliance – and the damage to the environment.
A simple rule-based approach can produce simple guidelines that are also absurd. Surrey Heath Council’s website advice on garden ponds (just fill them in) provides a knee-jerk reaction to a much-publicised issue – but just twenty children drown in ponds each year (Sibbert et al 2002) compared to 5,000 killed or seriously injured on the roads (AA Motoring Trust, 2003). It ignores the environmental benefits of garden ponds, their usefulness in a child’s education – and the fact that if the pond is the home of the wrong kind of newt, filling it in is potentially illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.
In practice each employer will have to reach a balance. To ensure zero accidents, it will be necessary to go out of business. On the other hand, to allow too many accidents will be reckless both of human good and economically. Given the complexities of measuring intangible human good against concrete accidents, injuries and deaths it is likely that companies will generally most efficiently be able to find this health and safety balancing point by assessing the point in the curve of economic efficiency where the cost of illness, lawsuits and repair balances the costs of accident prevention and Health and Safety activity. This balancing act varies by industry – for example, the rate of broken limbs in the Football Premiership would not be tolerated in any other line of business.
Another balance is also to be kept – between human autonomy and the desire of an employer or the state for that human to be kept in a healthy state. The EU Working Hours Directive is a deontological rule which, with the exception of the United Kingdom, has been imposed on employees for their good, and whether they like it or not. The case where a bakery employee took the State of New York to court for the right to work more than 60 hours a week put the opposite case – the court held that there was no “reasonable ground” for preventing the baker working these hours, even at the danger of his own health, as it would be an imposition on his personal freedom (Gostin 2002, p 254-257).
A Christian view
A challenge I received in planning this essay in discussion with Health and Safety experts – both Christian and nominally Christian – was as to whether ethics had any involvement in Health and Safety at all – let alone Christian ethics. I hope I have already established that ethical considerations are intrinsically related to the area. Now to consider the specific Christian views of this area.
In the first instance, Christians in the West do not belong in a sociological vacuum. The tendency of the Church to focus on sexual behaviour as if this were the only type of ethics to be considered probably distracts us from the other areas with which we should be concerned. However we are all involved in these areas as various kinds of “stakeholders” (to use what now sounds like quaintly 20th-century language). We spend our working lives in one workplace or another; we shop for goods that have been brought to us through a global supply chain; we own shares, either directly or indirectly through bank accounts, ISAs or pension funds. We have an interest in these areas – and we can influence them. We can do this by showing that we are prepared to put our own interests as stakeholders second to the interests of ensuring human good and – where the word is appropriate in this context – justice (Hauerwas 2003 pp 111-114).
BUSINESS AS ETHICAL
Firstly we should recognise a knee-jerk Christian tendency to regard business as an unethical, “dog-eat-dog” world. Atherton describes this Christian antipathy to economics and the market (Atherton 1992, p 217) while Higginson’s 1997 Grove Booklet notes this tendency in its subtitle – “the Law of the Jungle”. However as Higginson notes, in fact the code of business ethics in the West is actually quite strong, even when not enforced by law (Stackhouse 2001 pp 228-229). The respect that businesses pay to their competitors and their products is considerably greater than the way that politicians refer to their enemies, and the business ethic against cheating greater than in sport (Higginson 1997 p 23). One could add that the way that churches often treat other “rival” denominations and congregations in far worse ways than between any businesses. And businesses generally would not have the front to strong-arm money out of the public in the way that local councils do using dubious traffic-control measures (Brown 2008). In general, at least in the West, business does not regard it as acceptable to view employees and the public as simply accounting units.
Their well-being matters of itself.
Also business, production and distribution are in themselves good – they improve human life, distribute commodities efficiently, and are attested to with approval in much of the Bible such as Genesis and Proverbs (Stackhouse 2001, pp 231-234). This is not to approve of greed or ecological recklessness – but it is to recognise human creativity and work as good.
THE IMAGE OF GOD AND THE FALL
A Biblical basis for considering this area likewise has to consider that human beings have value in and of themselves – not as what they can produce, or what they consume. As created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) they are worthy of respect. To be sure, there are jobs that are unpleasant and dangerous – but that someone has to carry them out does not denigrate them as people.
Conversely, a Christian viewpoint can also be important in preserving an equally essential low view of humanity. A naive belief that people are basically good will blind us to seeing the evil that some can do when they are not suitably regulated. And it is not enough to have a realistic view of human potential for evil – we must also be realistic about their potential for stupidity. It is unreasonable, in a company that may have tens of thousands of shop floor workers, to give each the responsibility for being creative about their own and others’ safety. The sheer numbers – and the equipment that is generally involved – requires that appropriate behaviour be mandated. However it is essential, as respect for fellow-human beings and as part of the duty of care, that communication channels should always be kept open for better ways of doing things.
The Sabbath seems to be key. This is a principle built into the first chapter of the Bible, legislated for in Exodus 20, repeated throughout Leviticus and Deuteronomy and reinforced by the Prophets (Isa 56:2). One cannot overstate the number of times that this regulation occurs in the Torah. “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the foreigner among you as well, may be refreshed.” (Ex 21:12). Jesus, while refusing to adopt a duty-based view of Sabbath that would require him not to heal then (Luke 6), expresses the consequentialist principle that the Sabbath is for the good of humanity (Mark 2:27). The principle of the Sabbath extended to all the people of Israel and also to those who lived among them, even though it could be argued that breaking the Sabbath harms nobody but the one who does so. However the maximization of working hours – and indeed shopping hours – privileges those with the resources (or stupidity) to do so against those who cannot or will not. Add to this that a bullying and unwise employer can use coercion and the threat of unemployment to make his or her employees work unfair and unhealthy hours – and we can see why the Sabbath principle, even if it does not demand keeping “Sunday Special” can still demand that working hours be reasonable in the interests of the health of the workforce.
A PREFERENCE FOR THE POOR
The imperative to protect the poor, the widowed and the orphan is threaded through the Bible, old and new. When we impose regulations on our home-grown industry such that it is exported to countries where legislation is more lax, we have not washed our hands of responsibility. As consumers, we are still our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. As consumers we have a certain amount – and sometimes a great deal – of power to choose that our money goes to the companies, industries and factories that take the responsibility for their employees that we would want them to take for us – a practical and modern application of loving one’s neighbour as oneself (Lev 19:17; Mk 12:29).
I have indicated some of the complexities and ethical issues that are involved in the operation of Health and Safety within industry or other employers. The degree to which companies invest in these activities will always be a balancing act between criminal and civil law, the need for a company to make a profit, the duties of employees to follow their rules, and the good that wealth-making brings to the overall community. Judging between communal and individual good, and between individual autonomy and rule enforcement, is likewise a balancing act. By seeing human beings as made in God’s image – therefore precious and needing protection – but also as fallen – therefore fallible and requiring protection from – a Christian view helps us to see this as a moral issue.
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Brown, Carl 2008. LEYTONSTONE: Council forced to refund thousands in traffic fines. http://www.thisislocallondon.co.uk/whereilive/leyton/display.var.2076465.0.leytonstone_council_forced_to_refund_thousands_in_traffic_fines.php Accessed 19 May 2008.
Levitt, Steven D & Dubner, Stephen J 2005. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. London: Penguin / Allen Lane.
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Stobbart, L; Murtagh, M J; Rapley, T; Ford, G A; Louw, S ; Rodgers, H 2007. Medicine and the media: "We saw human guinea pigs explode". In British Medical Journal BMJ 2007;334:566-56. http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/334/7593/566?ck=nck accessed 19 May 2008.
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Bible Quotations are from the Anglicized New Revised Standard Version.