Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Health and Safety in the Workplace

The moral questions associated with health and safety in the workplace typically involve the harm principle and therefore are very complex. Ideally, one would expect companies to provide a healthy and safe working environment for all employees. But unfortunately, some occupations are inherently more dangerous than others, such as: steel work, police and military work, and lion taming. Although the workplace of a policeman or steel worker will never be as safe as that of a college professor, one might argue that companies ought to spare no expense in reducing those known risks. But providing a healthy and safe work environment always has a cost. Libertarians are fond of pointing out that government could make our interstate highways 100% safe by instituting a 25 MPH speed limit. But of course, that won't happen because the loss in terms of travel time is not worth the lives it would save. (What do you think about that one?) Similarly, most modern safety measures designed to protect policemen, such as well-equipped police cruisers, state of the art defensive weapons, cameras, bullet-proof vests, and well-trained police dogs all cost money. An idealist (usually a stakeholder theorist) might argue that the life of one policeman is more valuable than any amount of money, and therefore communities ought to spare no expense to insure the safest possible working environment. Although this may appear to be a sound moral position, I would argue that we must also take into account other principles such as utility and liberty.

A utilitarian would apply cost-benefit analysis and provide only those safety measures that are cost effective and most likely to actually protect the valued policeman from the most probable threats. Hence, if a small-town policeman rarely encounters armed bad guys, community leaders might justifiably decide to forego the bullet-proof vests and the AK47s. Some communities might decide to issue bullet proof vests and AK47s to their public school teachers.

Sometimes corporate enforcement of safety measures violates the liberty of its workers. Suppose a construction worker prefers to not wear a hard hat on the job, even though it substantially reduces the risk of head injuries. Should the company force him/her to wear that hard hat? Should policemen be forced to carry guns? Should college professors be forced to wear bullet proof vests? Self-interested utilitarian companies have no moral qualms with forcing employees to abide by health and safety standards. The liberty of its workers is always secondary to the "greatest happiness principle." They might deal with our risk-taking employee as follows: "Look! We spent thousands of dollars training you. If you get hurt on the job, it will hurt the company and we’ll have to train someone else to do your job. We won’t take that risk. Therefore, put on that damn hard hat or you’re fired!"

Paternalistic companies routinely violate the liberty principle in order to protect its workers from self-inflicted harm. They might say: "We realize that you would prefer not to spend $100 on a hard-hat, but it’s in your best interest to wear one. We’ll buy it for you. You wear it!" Of course, modern corporations must also deal with third-parties, especially insurance companies and paternalistic government regulators.

Libertarians, however, elevate personal self-interest over communal self-interest. They would simply require that companies warn workers of all known job-related risks and perhaps provide access to safety equipment. But in the end it is the worker alone that has the right to decide whether to use it or not. Of course, this means that if a worker suffers a head injury on the job because she didn’t wear her hard hat, she alone is responsible for the injury, not the company. The libertarian boss would, however, exercise his/her liberty and hire someone to replace our risk-taking, brain-damaged libertarian worker. Hence we have the classic moral tension between utilitarian policies which violate the liberty of individual workers by forcing them to work safely in order to promote the "greatest good," and, liberty-based policies which avoid force, protect the liberty of both employers and employees, but sometimes sacrifice utility in doing so.

Stockholder Theorists argue that workplace safety standards, like wages, ought to be market-based, voluntary and contractual: set by personal decisions forged between employers and employees based on market forces. If a company has unsafe working conditions, rationally self-interested workers will either demand higher wages or gravitate toward other jobs that offer better working conditions. Moreover, if a worker is injured at an unsafe workplace because he/she chooses dangerous work at higher compensation level, then that worker himself would be responsible for the injury and not the company or the government: unless he earlier chose to purchase workman’s compensation from another corporation.

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