What Makes an Effective Safety Professional? - Part 5 (Final)

Haidt’s Moral Foundations

In a previous article I examined the evolutionary history of moral character in order to try and establish a basis for judging the comments on the LinkedIn thread:

Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?

In his book ‘The Righteous Mind’, Professor Jonathan Haidt of New York University’s Stern School of Business suggests that there are essentially six basic moral foundations. These foundations are all set differently in each human, due to differences in genetic makeup, development (particularly fetal development) during ontogeny, and environmental factors such as culture and experience. Each foundation has different settings and, like the settings on a music sound system, can be set high in some people and low in others. Just as some sound systems have the base turned up and some don’t. These basic moral foundations are: caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

For example, most people, with the exception of psychopaths who reason but don’t feel, instinctively respond to signs of suffering in their children. And because our brains are essentially pattern recognizers the response is not confined to our own offspring but is generated whenever we encounter something similar to that trigger. The set of current triggers for any element of the moral matrix can, therefore, be much larger than the set of original triggers. This means that even a cute toy or a picture of a baby seal or kitten can trigger an instinctive reaction to care.

He also suggests that each of these positive values is opposed by a negative related value, and that each moral setting for an individual will lie within a range somewhere between the two extremes. Where we are within that range is then influenced by personal and environmental factors.

For example the opposite of the ‘care’ value is ‘harm’. Our setting lies between a predisposition to care for our fellow humans and our propensity to do them harm. This is adapted to the environment we find ourselves in, but it is also affected by personal factors, such as what psychologist Dan McAdams refers to as the three levels of personality:


This works smoothly for most people as the challenges of daily living do not present too much difficulty. It is only when we step outside our natural range due to circumstances beyond our control (wartime, poverty, abusive households etc.) that people struggle. And sometimes two moral foundations can push us in different directions, creating dissonance. For instance, a soldier’s loyalty and authority foundation might cause him to do something that his care/harm foundation finds objectionable. This can lead to terrible feelings of guilt or trauma.

An Effective Safety Professional’s Moral Foundation

In a previous article I looked at the suggestion by Professor Jonathan Haidt, of New York University’s Stern School of Business, that there are essentially six basic moral foundations, as I was curious to see if there was a specific moral foundation for an effective safety professional. With this in mind I analyzed the 134 responses to the Linked in thread (Describe in one word… An effective safety professional is ________________ ?) and applied Haidt’s theory. The result of my analysis is given in the tables below:

Predictive Solutions - Safety Professional


This exercise produced some interesting results. It would appear from the almost uniform scores that there isn’t a specific moral foundation for an effective safety professional. And I have to admit that this surprised me, because I expected the care/harm foundation to come out on top. I had thought that a lot of safety professionals would have entered into the profession because of their desire to protect and care for their fellow workers. Surely there could be no greater act of caring that to spend your days trying to maintain the health and safety of others. Especially in highly competitive commercial environment where there is a considerable emphasis on production and a lack of empathy between management and their employees.

Indeed, it has been my experience that effective safety professionals often act as honest brokers or guardians of a company’s duty of care to workers so that management can understand the workers point of view. Because many company managers do not know any of the people who work at the pointy end of the hazards they help to maintain. They are just numbers on a page and their injuries are simply lines on a graph. I have worked in places where the managers stayed in their ivory tower surrounded by minions who probably told them what they wanted to hear and brought back pronouncements from on high for the workers to obey. These managers were completely disconnected from the reality on the ground and could not begin to appreciate what the term hazard actually meant.

I once found myself playing golf alongside one such manager while representing our local golf club in a team competition. It came as an awful shock to me that he was actually a really nice guy. And I’m sure it must have come as quite a surprise to him that not all of his workers were hairy Neanderthals. In fact we got on very well together even though there had been a lot of conflict back at the factory. I missed one game though, because I had burned my hand on a steam pipe that ran right behind my work station. The pipe had been mentioned in several dispatches and was on a long list of items that needed attention. However the week after the factory manager saw the blisters on my hand the pipe was covered. It ceased to be an intangible representation of a hazard on a list, and it became a real source of pain for someone he knew. I think that effective safety professionals help managers understand this concept.

Predictive Solutions - Safety Professional 2


I was also surprised that the authority foundation came out well ahead of all the others (ties in with Belbin’s ‘shaper’ from a previous article). It would appear that the effective safety professional may well be predisposed to being one of the safety police that I have never had much time for. All the safety police I worked with started out as a moral crusaders, but became disillusioned at some point, abandoned the crusade, and reverted (seemingly out of spite) to creating and implementing rules and regulations. Violations of these rules would, of course, result in severe sanctions. Safety was paramount after all, so who could argue with the necessity for either the rules or the sanctions. They were for your own good.

The safety police would then spend the bulk of their time trying to catch people violating those very rules, while dangling some kind of reward (trinket, pizza party etc.) at the end of the month for those who complied (didn’t get caught) with their regime. Most of the safety police that I encountered were extremely assiduous career orientated people who held a zealous belief in the efficacy of the simple ABC model of human behavior.

The ABC model (antecedent-behavior-consequence) suggests that behaviors are triggered by antecedent stimuli and motivated essentially by consequences. For example, a driver sees light about to turn red, considers the alternatives, but stops because the consequences of running the light are prohibitive. This is a very simplistic view of human behavior that considers the human brain, essentially, as a conscious data processor. People are a lot more complicated than that though, and most of our decision making is performed at a subconscious level by an emotional mind, which can be motivated by abstract ideas that may, or may not take account of consequences.

In any case, the consequences they say are most effective when they are soon, certain and positive; which is true, a lot of the time, but not all the time. And the ‘positive’ spin was never really the first port of call for the safety police that I worked with; if it entered their heads at all it was as an afterthought. Workers knew deep down that it was really the negative consequences (which do not need to be either soon or certain) that were going to be used to manipulate their behavior. It was essentially the old command and control model remarketed and rebranded. In a given situation do this and/or this might happen.

Despite my high hopes however, the tables do not help me discern what moral values are necessary in an Effective Safety Professional. Indeed my meandering journey through organization, collaboration and morality, has not left me any wiser as to what qualities must be present in an effective safety professional. It remains an elusive confluence of characteristics.


Over a series of articles, I looked at how the responses to the questionnaire could be interpreted under the categories of technical proficiency, teamwork, and character. However, it was apparent from very early on that most of the responses could only be interpreted as character traits (commitment, passion etc.). And of these, most were moral judgments (trustworthy, conscientious, etc.). One way of looking at the responses that requires no interpretation at all, is to view them simply as virtue ethics.

According to Jonathan Haidt in his book ‘The Righteous Mind’, in all of the world’s great civilizations, moral instruction took the form of stories about cultural heroes who exemplified certain virtues. When more formal philosophy developed later on, it often included an analyses of the virtues extolled in the stories and suggested that these virtues should be cultivated by young people as a set of habits, character traits, and practical skills which might be mastered over many years. Virtues were also role-specific; each person plays a part in several systems from family up through nation and a virtuous person must learn how to play the parts well. Virtues, like most things, can be defined by what they are (abstract) or by what they do (functional), but most approaches favor the latter method and treat them as character traits that a person needs in order to live a good, praiseworthy life.

Haidt contends that the mind is like a rider (conscious controlled processes; Kanneman’s system 2) on an elephant (unconscious automatic processes; Kahneman’s system 1) and only virtue ethics will address the whole mind. Virtue theories, though, always emphasize the importance of practice, training, reflection and habit. Aristotle and Confucius both concluded independently that learning to be virtuous is like learning to play a musical instrument, hence the term virtuoso, because virtuosity requires years of practice and studious attention to role models until the ear is educated and the hands move easily, almost on their own.

Virtues are excellences of character that equip people to play their roles in society. There are many roles and many kinds of interaction, so there are many virtues. A good soldier should not cultivate the virtues of a priest; a good daughter should not cultivate the virtues of a father. The virtues on display in a rice-farming culture (which requires extraordinary cooperation) differ from those held out to children in a sheep-herding culture (which requires more masculine toughness to guard one’s flocks), which in turn differ from those of an urban trading culture (emphasizing contracts and voluntary exchange). So virtue theories are pluralistic—they can’t be reduced to a single master virtue.

Therefore, without any more ado, procrastination, filibustering, stalling or further gilding the Lilly, here are the virtues required of an Effective Safety Professional according to the contributors on LinkedIn:

Predictive Solutions - Safety Professional 3

You’re welcome!

Well nobody said that being a good Safety Professional would be easy. The road to virtue is arduous and many things outside our control can go wrong, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Immanuel Kant. Just as the right education, habits, influences, examples, etc. can promote the development of virtue, the wrong influencing factors can promote vice. Some people will be lucky and receive the help and encouragement they need to attain moral maturity, but others will not.

Indeed, the very use of the term PROFESSIONAL in the first place should be seen as denoting something that is intrinsically difficult. One doesn’t tend to consult a professional when it comes to something easy. Like peeling potatoes, say. Professional advice is only sought when faced with a difficult situation requiring expertise. The purpose of a professional qualification, in my view, has always been to turn raw recruits into capable, well rounded people with expertise that is not easily acquired or applied.

A professional, in my view, is someone who aspires to a high level of competence or skill for which they are paid; as opposed to an amateur who is seen as a dabbler displaying less competence or skill and is unpaid. A professional operates in a specialized field of knowledge which demands higher learning or a lengthy and arduous training. Professionals, within a field establish the standards, values and identity of the profession, eliminating along the way those who do not possess the aptitude, intelligence or dedication to reach those standards.

With this in mind, it is not enough to produce individuals who are simply capable of passing demanding examinations. The ultimate aim must be to produce people who can exert discretionary judgment. It is the latitude to make decisions based on their own assessment of a situation, utilizing all the elements of good moral judgment, which distinguish a true professional from a charlatan. This requires an ability to evaluate, think systematically and generate alternatives to complex problems, often involving ethical concerns that affect the general public; an arduous responsibility.

Indeed, those who get big decisions wrong or who shy away from making decisions do not usually last long in most professions (politics excluded obviously). However, responsibility is notable by its absence from the list above. Accountability comes close, but a person can be held accountable for something for which they had no real responsibility. It could be argued, I suppose, that line management are the ones who have (and should have) responsibility for safety, as they are the ones who must ultimately balance production and safety. However, this does not entirely get the safety professional off the hook. They still have a responsibility to advise and monitor line management.

Accepting responsibility, though, is not something that comes naturally, and anyone who has young children will be familiar with Bart Simpsons attitude to responsibility ‘It wasn’t me, nobody saw me do it, you can’t prove anything’. Responsibility then must be learned, and it is something that can only be learned through experience, ‘If you want children to keep their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders’; Abigail Van Buren.

In my opinion, seeking responsibility is the most important virtue an Effective Safety Professional must acquire. And, as with all virtues, this will only come about through practice, reflection, development, implementation and further reflection.



Liam Moran

Written by Liam Moran

Liam has worked on construction sites in the US, UK and Ireland, and spent over 17 years working as a skilled butcher for a meat processor while continuing to run his family’s farm. Following the closure of the processing plant, Liam returned to college where he obtained a First Class Honours Degree in Construction Management, and went on to work as a Site Engineer for a construction company. Liam became interested in Health and Safety when he wrote a thesis, The Effect of Group Dynamics on Safety Culture, for his Honours Degree qualification and subsequently went on to gain a post graduate qualification on the topic from Trinity College Dublin.

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