Safety and OSHA News

Is it ethical to just pay a higher wage for more dangerous jobs?

A new paper by a Wharton professor argues offering employees higher pay to do a dangerous job doesn’t make it ethical, particularly if the trade-off is delaying necessary safety measures. 

Two of the most dangerous industries are fishing and logging. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says these industries have some of the highest injury rates.

It’s common practice that employees in some dangerous jobs receive hazard pay.

Robert Hughes, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton, says if the only reason someone takes a hazardous job is for the extra money, there’s an ethical problem unless the job can be made safer.

In the examples of fishing and logging, they are things we need: food and building material. Therefore, there’s a reason to take the job (providing valuable resources) other than higher pay.

But in a recent podcast, Hughes uses another example: gemstone mining. Let’s say gemstone mining is just as safe as coal and metal mining at the outset, but then a new hazard makes it more dangerous. Is it ethical to keep hiring people under the new, hazardous conditions?

Hughes says the gemstone mining company has two choices: Either fix the safety issue or pay the people more. He argues that it’s not OK to solve the problem by just paying people more. Instead, you should fix the safety issue or, if necessary, close the mine.

Why? Because the job isn’t socially important and it’s become inherently dangerous, Hughes says.

The Wharton prof says in making that statement he’s using a Kantian ethical theory known as “Formula of Humanity,” that says you shouldn’t treat people merely as a means. Humanity is an end, not a means.

Ethics and safety regs

During the podcast, Hughes was asked how safety regulations combine with ethics, particularly if the regs aren’t well-enforced.

Hughes says:

  • Companies have to follow the safety regs even if you’re not worried about being inspected and receiving a fine, and
  • Sometimes ethics is more demanding than the law – you have to go above and beyond what the law requires.

What if other companies in your industry are gaining a competitive advantage by doing something illegal or unethical regarding worker safety? Does that make it OK for your company to do the same?

Hughes says the answer is clearly no, because “at a certain point, you just have to think, ‘What kind of a person am I going to be?'”

In other words, the ends (your company’s product) does not justify the means (your employees’ safety and health), even if you pay workers more to take greater risks.

Sustainability and safety

For anyone who has spent some time in charge of workplace safety, what Hughes wrote about is at least somewhat familiar territory.

Reminders are provided frequently about how OSHA doesn’t have enough inspectors to visit all businesses on a regular basis. So, unless your reported injury rate is above industry average, someone sees and reports your employees at risk, or an employee suffers a serious injury or dies, the average facility has a small chance of actually seeing an OSHA inspector.

That’s when some companies choose to take the risk of not following safety regulations. If the company is lucky and nothing bad happens, they get away with it, save money and gain a competitive edge.

Of course the consequence if they don’t get away with it could change a person’s life forever – or end it.

But what if human sustainability gained equal or even higher footing with environmental sustainability?

The Center for Safety and Health Sustainability (CSHS) suggested in a 2017 report that the greenest companies aren’t doing enough to show how their sustainability efforts extend to their workforce.

The CSHS found that while these companies do a lot of reporting about their green efforts, there was a lack of voluntary reporting on human sustainability, aka occupational safety and health. Or, if there was reporting, there were no consistent metrics to be able to easily compare companies.

The organization suggests companies adopt two key indicators based on workplace safety management systems: how many of a company’s job sites implement them and how many are audited by an independent third party. CSHS also suggests companies measure safety in their supply chains. It cited one example in which a company reported no worker fatalities, but did report 27 deaths in its supply chain.

With measurements such as these, consumers could use the ratings just as they do when they look for green companies.

As someone in charge of workplace safety, how do ethics play into your company’s occupational safety and health decision? Is it ethical to just pay workers a higher wage for more dangerous jobs? Does your company go above and beyond OSHA regulations because it’s the right thing to do? Or is remaining competitive and profitable more likely to drive those decisions?

Let us know in the comments.

Hughes’ paper, Paying People to Risk Life or Limb, was published in the journal Business Ethics Quarterly.

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