It’s a Dangerous Job – but Does Someone Have to Do It?

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Wharton's Robert Hughes discusses his new research about the ethical questions facing firms that employ workers in physically dangerous jobs.

The services performed by industries like logging, fishing, mining, firefighting, truck driving and the military are critical to sustaining the standard of living as we know it in the U.S. and across the world. But they also expose people employed in those fields to significant physical risks.

A new paper by Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Robert Hughes takes a closer look at the ethical questions facing companies that employ workers in physically dangerous jobs. In “Paying People to Risk Life or Limb,” which was published in the journal Business Ethics Quarterly, Hughes argues that simply offering employees higher pay to do a physically dangerous job doesn’t make it ethically permissible for companies to put them at risk, nor is it a good reason to put off implementing necessary safety measures. He recently sat down with Knowledge@Wharton to discuss his paper.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What was the inspiration for this paper?

Robert Hughes: This research came out of my experience at the National Institutes of Health as a fellow in the Bioethics Department. One of the things I learned while I was a fellow there is that there’s a big difference in the attitudes that people have toward risk in medicine and in business. In business, the general attitude toward dangerous jobs is we should inform our employees about the risks — at least ethical businesses do that — and I think many people would also say we need to fairly compensate people for those risks and take reasonable safety measures. But we don’t need to be worried about whether this job has any kind of special social value. As long as there’s consent, and as long as there’s fair pay, and as long as there’s reasonable safety measures, it’s fine.

Medicine has a very different attitude. In medicine we have research on human subjects, and human subjects take risks. They’re generally smaller risks than the most dangerous occupations. But the attitude in medicine is it’s not enough to get informed consent. You need that, but it’s not enough to pay subjects for taking risks. It’s not enough to take minimization measures. You also have to make sure that you’re exposing people to risk for a good social cause. If this research doesn’t have potential social value, it’s considered unethical to expose people to risks — even if you pay them, and even if you inform them. And I thought, “This is an interesting asymmetry.” My mentor, Alan Wertheimer [from the University of Vermont], noticed this asymmetry, too. And this got me thinking about who has the right answer to this question — the business community or the medical ethics community? And basically, I think the medical ethics community got this one right.

Knowledge@Wharton: In this case, what do you define as a “hazardous” job?

Hughes: I’m thinking specifically about physical risks, so I mentioned risk to life or risk to limb. It doesn’t necessarily have to be to a “limb,” but I’m thinking about injuries to people’s bodies. I’m also thinking specifically about risks that are great enough that it’s necessary to pay people more — either to compensate them fairly for those risks, or as an inducement to get them to take the job.

Knowledge@Wharton: Can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at the argument you make in this paper?

Hughes: Maybe it would be helpful to say a little bit about my field, which is moral philosophy. Moral philosophy takes on the task of thinking through difficult ethical issues in a rational and principled way. There are two specific things, as I see our job. One thing that we do is when there are hard cases where people don’t know what’s right and wrong, we can use principles that derive from other areas and use those principles to sort through those hard cases.

Another thing that we can do is we can show that some widely held ethical beliefs are in tension with each other. Here’s a personal example: When I was 30, I had finished my Ph.D. I realized I had a set of four beliefs that don’t hold together. I thought it’s perfectly OK to eat pork. It’s not OK to eat dogs. Whether it’s OK to eat an animal depends on how smart the animal is. And pigs are smarter than dogs. Those four things are not consistent, and it took me until age 30 to realize that they’re not consistent. Now this doesn’t tell me which of those four beliefs is false. It could be any one of those four beliefs, but I knew — reflecting in that way — that I had a false belief about something. So reasoning about morality is possible. This is not all subjective. This is not all purely a matter of opinion. I knew, as a matter of fact, I had at least one objectively false belief about ethics.

“Who has the right answer to this question — the business community or the medical ethics community? And basically, I think the medical ethics community got this one right.”

The perspective that I’m using in this paper is that I’m drawing on Kantian ethical theory. Kantian ethical theory is one of the most influential theoretical perspectives in ethics, and it’s a complicated theory, but the core principle is pretty simple. It’s known as the “Formula of Humanity,” which says you shouldn’t treat people or people’s humanity merely as a means. You should treat humanity as an end. This can explain a lot of very commonly held moral judgments. It can explain why you shouldn’t defraud people, because that’s sort of tinkering with people’s reasoning in order to get what you want. It’s damaging their humanity. You shouldn’t kill a relative to get the inheritance. That’s destroying them to get what you want. And in the context of this paper, you shouldn’t deliberately expose someone to risk as a means to the end of higher pay.

Knowledge@Wharton: Now in this paper, you make the distinction between what you call “foreseen risks” and “intended risks.” What’s the difference, and why is that important?

Hughes: So let’s think of two examples. First example: A couple is on vacation — they are going on vacation on a mountain — and a storm starts. The mountain has a winding road, so going up that road is going to be dangerous. They decide, “We want our vacation anyway. We paid for it. We’ve been looking forward to it. We’re going to take the drive even though it’s dangerous.” They’re taking a risk. They know they’re taking a risk, but it’s only foreseen. The risk isn’t helping them get something they want. It’s actually getting in their way — quite literally.

Now imagine they get to the top of that mountain, and they realize they forgot something. They wanted some truffles for their dinner, and they forgot the truffles. And they really want the truffles. So they find a courier who’s willing to drive up the mountain during the storm with those truffles. But the courier says, “You need to pay me extra because of this storm.” And let’s suppose this courier could get other work at sea level that wasn’t so dangerous — no mountain road. This courier is exposing himself to risk as a means to the end of higher pay. For this courier, the risk is not just a foreseen side effect. It’s actually part of what’s getting him what he wants.

I think there’s an ethical difference there. I’m not going to pass judgment on the couple when they choose to go up the mountain. But I am going to pass judgment on both the couple and the driver when they choose to expose someone to a risk as a means to higher pay for the socially not-very-valuable goal of getting truffles.

Knowledge@Wharton: So if we’re looking at not just the courier or the couple but the company that has hired the courier, what would you say to the company, then, as far as that hazard pay question goes?

Hughes: So I did use this example in the paper — and in the example there’s a private contract. There’s no company involved. But what are the questions that a company should be asking? I think the first thing they should be asked when they’re exposing their employees to risk is how big are the risks? Are the risks big enough that we would need to pay someone extra to induce them to do it? And if so, that should be a signal. We need to look out and ask some more questions.

What are those next two questions? The first question is about social value, and that includes the value of skill expression on the job. Is there a reason other than hazard pay that someone might take this job? And if not, we really need to be making that job safer. It’s unethical to go ahead as things are now.

“You shouldn’t deliberately expose someone to risk as a means to the end of higher pay.”

Of course there are lots of jobs that are socially very important that are inherently dangerous. Fishing and logging are the two most dangerous jobs in the United States. We need food, including — I think — fish. We need wood in order for society to run the way that it does. There are lots of other dangerous jobs where we can’t completely get rid of the risks. But because they’re socially valuable, people have a reason to take these jobs — other than just the money. Of course the money is always part of it. But if you’re just satisfying consumer preferences — that’s all you’re doing — the only reason for people to take this job is money. And the only reason to take it rather than a safer job is the extra money — the hazard pay — then you have something to worry about. It might not be ethical to hire for this job at all, unless you can make it safer.

Even if you’ve got one of these socially necessary jobs or something that’s valuable … you should be thinking about safety measures that you could take. And the other big takeaway from my paper is that workers’ preferences between safety and money shouldn’t settle the question. If you can only justify omitting an expensive safety measure by pointing to your workers’ preferences, you really need to take some greater concern for your employees than that.

Knowledge@Wharton: And so it’s not enough just that a worker is saying, “Well, I want the money, so I’ll do this job.”

Hughes: That’s it.

Knowledge@Wharton: The company still has to think about the ethical question here.

Hughes: That’s absolutely right, yes.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do ethics come into play with the law in this case? A lot of countries like the U.S. have regulations that talk about dangerous jobs, talk about safety measures. There are other parts of the world that maybe don’t have as stringent guidelines on that. So how can a company look at the law versus this level of ethics that they should aspire to or maybe want to aspire to?

Hughes: So that raises two important points. One is that in a lot of developing countries (and not just developing countries — this happens here, too) a lot of laws are on the books that are not well-enforced. Just recently there were some factory fires in Bangladesh where some people — I believe they were residents, not workers — were killed by fires in illegal chemical factories. They were illegal factories, but the laws against these factories weren’t well enforced.

“Sometimes ethics is more demanding than the law on the books. Sometimes you have an ethical requirement to take concern for your workers above and beyond what the law requires.”

So one thing that this paper raises is you’ve got to be following these safety laws, even if they’re not well-enforced, even if you’re not afraid of the fines. You should be concerned about the workers and the other people you’re exposing to risk.

But the second issue is that sometimes ethics is more demanding than the law on the books. Sometimes you have an ethical requirement to take concern for your workers above and beyond what the law requires.

Knowledge@Wharton: And that sounds really easy in theory, but we have all these examples out there of where companies don’t do that or leaders don’t do that. So would you have advice for them, as far as how to guide yourself in these sorts of situations?

Hughes: Being good is not easy, and we’re all tempted to do bad things. That’s just life. And I think it can be especially tempting in a business context, when you feel pressure from competitors. But think about — what if you have a competitor who’s getting an edge by committing fraud? And getting away with it. Or some kind of — let’s say not fraud. Fraud is illegal and punishable, but say they’re committing a form of deception that’s clearly unethical but falls in one of the loopholes in the law. Does that make it OK for you to engage in deception?

And the answer is just clearly no. That’s not OK. Deception is not a good business practice. Sometimes the reputational risk can be enough to motivate someone. But at a certain point, you just have to think, “What kind of a person am I going to be?” And that’s a hard question.

Knowledge@Wharton: How would these arguments change for a job that wouldn’t have been described as “hazardous” when the person took the job, but then something changes later on? So one example I could think of is teaching. I think some teachers today could argue that maybe they didn’t realize when they took the job that they could be at risk of being the victim of a school shooting — or having to protect their students from one.

Or another example might be journalism. A foreign correspondent in a war-torn area knows that he or she could be facing physical risk, but a local reporter maybe wouldn’t know that. But these days they could be. So how do companies deal with that?

Hughes: The ethics of the hazards of a job changing are going to end up being really the same as the ethics of hiring in the first place. Now teaching and journalism are both socially essential jobs. And people do and should choose these jobs for reasons other than the pay, though of course fair pay is very important.

“Deception is not a good business practice.”

But let’s think about something else. Let’s think about a gemstone mine, and let’s suppose when it opens, it’s as safe as all the other mines in the industry, including metal mines, coal mines. And then suddenly a new hazard develops, and it becomes much more dangerous to work in that mine. The company, at that point, needs to stop and think, “Is it ethical to keep hiring people at these wages under these conditions?” And my arguments would imply — well first of all, economically you’re probably not going to be able to retain the workers at the same wages. You’re going to have to change something. You’re going to have to either fix the safety issue, or you’re going to have to pay people more. And my argument would imply it’s not OK to solve this problem by just paying people more. You really have to fix the safety issue that has emerged.

Of course, there are some safety issues that can’t be addressed. I don’t want to get into the specifics of some of the things that you raised. Those raise very hard questions.

Knowledge@Wharton: But in the case of the gemstone mine, it sounds like what you’re saying is you would close the mine.

Hughes: You might have to close the mine. That’s right.

Knowledge@Wharton: What’s next for this research?

Hughes: This is part of a larger project on thinking about the limits of informed consent. When is informed consent enough to make a transaction or a business relationship ethical, and when is it not? I am going to be doing some broader theoretical work on this issue. I’m also going to be thinking specifically about two more particular issues — one being fair pay. That’s a major issue in our national discourse right now. And another issue is pricing of life-saving pharmaceuticals and other medically necessary drugs.

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"It’s a Dangerous Job – but Does Someone Have to Do It?." Knowledge@Wharton. The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 01 April, 2019. Web. 21 September, 2019 <https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/dangerous-jobs-ethics/>

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It’s a Dangerous Job – but Does Someone Have to Do It?. Knowledge@Wharton (2019, April 01). Retrieved from https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/dangerous-jobs-ethics/

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accessed September 21, 2019. https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/dangerous-jobs-ethics/


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