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10 April, 2013 Posted by Christopher Jenner Posted in Blog
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Safety and Ethics – Cooke’s Works Reflection

Cooke's Explosives Works Disaster 1988

The Cooke’s Works disaster in 1988 was an explosion at one of Dyno Nobel’s explosives facilities that took the lives of 2 workers. The investigation of employees and the resulting legal consequences provide a solid basis for reflection on the relevance of safety and ethics.

“Directors and engineers responsibilities for safety – a cautionary tale” by Brian Harris, is a personal recount of the Cooke’s Works disaster in 1988. What’s interesting about the paper is the open format in which it is written by a former executive of the company at the time of the incident. Although the paper is written in an impartial manner, the title does give away its true purpose as a cautionary tale.

When working through the list of fundamental ethical principles outlined in the “Statement of Ethical Principles” for engineers, it’s hard to see where the Nobel Explosives management went wrong. Due to the nature of the process “…the review of health and safety issues and performance was always a prominent and first agenda item …” as described by Brian Harris (former Nobel’s management). The chain of management appeared to show commitment to the four key ethical principles: Accuracy and Rigour, Honesty and Integrity, Respect for Life, Law and Public Good and Responsible Leadership. Even though a number of steps had been implemented to mitigate the impact of incidents, it was well known that the risks inherent in the process could not be entirely removed.

So what is ethical conduct and why is it essential?  When we are ethical, we adopt a certain set of guidelines that the majority of other human beings abide by. At an organisational and professional level ethical conduct provides a way for people to work together and strive for a common goal while taking pride in their work. By being ethical at work, a culture can be developed that follows on to portray the company as a moral institution deserving of respect by the community and other businesses. Being ethical socially allows individuals to bond and develop relationships through a number of mutual guiding values. When people treat each other with honesty, integrity and fairness they are more likely to have aligned behaviours and be able to work/live together. Conducting our actions ethically supports effective communication and socialisation with other individuals, much the same as it allows a company to garner respect. At a personal level ethics provides a basis for right and wrong. At the core of most humans is the desire to be fair, honest and unbiased, and to be treated under the same code of conduct.

On March 29, 1990 Nobel Explosives was prosecuted for failing to ensure the safety of employees by the lack of supervision. Taking into consideration the ethical principles outlined above, and the company’s apparent commitment to safety, the title becomes more relevant. I think what Brian is trying to say is that, even though it may seem that you have all the bases covered, it only takes one break of procedure to nullify those safeguards. There will always be unforeseen risks inherent in any process but by following The Statement of Ethics it ensures that you have not been negligent in your role.

What do you think? Was the ruling fair and did Brian act appropriately or was there another way?

Brian, Harris. 2004. “Directors’ and Engineers’ responsibilities for Safety – a Cautionary Tale.” Loss Prevention Bulletin (180): 12.

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