Profestional Ethics

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Session No. 714

Professional Ethics
Dr. Peter Strahlendorf
Ryerson University
School of Occupational and Public Health
Professional ethics has become more important over the years. As we become more specialized in our occupation, the issues become that much more complex – and hard. Professional bodies have increasingly been at work developing, revising and refining professional codes of ethics. Professionals themselves ask for more detailed codes so as to have greater guidance. There is no longer a deference to the authority of experts on the part of the public or of the client group. The standards for professional conduct keep drifting higher. Where safety and health are at issue, the regulators are under more pressure to act when professional groups do not act. Frankly, it is a sign of maturity, and of professional pride, when a professional group is operating under a code of ethics.

What do we mean by professional ethics? What sorts of issues are likely to come up during the career of an OHS professional? How does one resolve ethical dilemmas? How should one use a professional code of ethics?

Professional ethics helps a professional choose what to do when faced with a problem at work that raises a moral issue. One can certainly study what professionals do when faced with such problems, and confine the enquiry to the description. Our concern here, however, is to assist with making choices – an approach called prescriptive professional ethics. By an “occupational health and safety (OHS) professional” we mean someone who is engaged in providing OHS services either as an OHS co-ordinator or manager (the range of job titles is enormous) and would include people who serve as consultants or as government regulators. However, such a person would also have to belong to a formal group, as discussed below. A narrow definition of “professional” is a self-regulating occupational group capable of legally prohibiting others from practising. A broader view of a profession, as described by Brincat & Wilke1, would possess the following elements:

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group identity
shared education, training (requirements for admission)
special, uncommon knowledge
knowledge used in the service of others (positive social need) involves individual judgement, some autonomy in decision making adherence to certain values
penalties for substandard performance

To meet this description, you are not a professional until you are a member of a group of colleagues who have articulated a set of standards and values and can enforce them, at the very least, by exclusion from the group. OHS practitioners are not true professionals in the narrow sense unless they are also members of a statutorily protected group such as nurses, engineers, lawyers or physicians, who can use the courts to prevent people from engaging in their practice areas. But OHS practitioners are certainly professionals in the broader sense if they have been accepted into one of a half dozen or so OHS organizations that enforce a code of ethics. We are taking the broader view here. Will there ever be a full OHS profession in Canada operating under a monopoly-granting statute? Time will tell – and there are pros and cons – but the practical barrier remains the wide diversity of OHS practitioners and the overlap between what different groups do. Canadian OHS professional groups do not have a lot of formal ethics cases in front of their disciplinary committees. This doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. There is likely a reluctance to report issues. A recent study of ethical misconduct among industrial hygienists in the UK by Burgess and Mullen2 found that 77% of respondents had witnessed activities of potential ethical misconduct by their peers over a 5 year period. The list below starts with the most commonly reported behaviours, ending with least common:

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Plagiarism
Failure to protect confidential data
Failure to share credit on a report...
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