Do We Have A Duty To Save A Life?

As I wrote this weeks post for the Rockford Greene International blog, “Everyone is an idiot but me” I got to wondering about the duty of a safety professional to intervene when he or she sees a threat to safety.  The idea of duty is a cornerstone of Just Culture and of the legal code of most industrialized nations.  “Everyone is an idiot…” centers on the hypocrisy of safety professionals who say they want to create a safety culture but then do things that impede the development of a safety culture.

I thought I would devote this space to an exploration of duty; specifically, what duty does a safety professional have when he or she is “off-the-clock”? Does a safety professional have a responsibility to intervene when he or she sees a life-threatening situation? If so, why? and if not, why not?

The laws of most nations are pretty clear: while people have may have a legal responsibility to avoid deliberately causing harm, injuring another, or even accidentally injuring someone because of negligence.  There are even Good Samaritan clauses in the laws of many nations that protect those who act in good faith to help an injured person from lawsuits. But is there a deeper responsibility by virtue of our profession? Do we, because we call ourselves a safety professional, have a professional responsibility to get involved in situations where we believe harm is impending?

I got thinking about this quandary as I selected whacky photos of unsafe acts that safety professionals find so precious.  I guess I wanted to rub the self-righteous noses of the safety belligerents who send me hate mail (“You don’t offer any positive suggestions, you just criticize our practices”) in another one of their cherished traditions. (Yes, I am a petty, petty man.) As I sifted through the photos it suddenly hit me. Someone callously took these photos; someone who could have gotten involved but chose instead to snap a couple of quick photos.  In an instant a person chose to photograph the situation instead of acting to save a life.  If these same photographers were to take pictures of people dying in these circumstances we might judge them differently. It’s on the same continuum but somehow the consequences shape our view of the responsibility.

I don’t think anyone would condemn a person for not getting involved in hazardous circumstances if in so doing the person subjects him/herself (or others) to danger.  No one can judge the safety professional for not sacrificing him/herself to save another.  Doing so might make the safety professional a hero, but nobody has a duty to be heroic.  In fact, doing something out of duty obviates heroism.  Unlike some professionals, safety professionals don’t take an oath to save the lives of others.

Essential to this dilemma is the question is “safety professional” a job, a calling, or who we are? If safety professional is a job then clearly there is no responsibility for us to do our job in situations where we won’t be compensated.  While we may have a moral responsibility to protect a stranger there is no enforceable law that says we must take action.

If safety professional is our calling or who we are as our quintessential selves than we must take action.  Ignoring a situation that places a stranger in impending danger puts at odds with our nature.  Call it sin, bad karma, powerful ju-ju, or whatever, but we are drawn at a very basic level to act.

So where does that leave us? Indifferent slob or safety crusader? Are these are only choices? And if we are bound to intervene to what extent and in what circumstances? It’s a cipher—do we spend our days with a mop and bucket mopping up spills?

If we agree (and I doubt we do) that safety professionals have an intrinsic responsibility to intervene where is the line? Should I be yanking away driver’s licenses of the mouth-breathing brutes that weave through traffic on the expressway? Should I bat away the cell phones of those who text while driving? Hazards are everywhere; at what point does the duty to intervene kick in? To answer that question we have to look at probability and severity.  If the probability that a situation will end in injury is highly likely AND the severity is likely to be high (death or dismemberment) then it is clearly appropriate to intercede.  But if the chances of catastrophe are small (improbable with low severity) any action would likely be seen as meddling and an unwelcome intrusion.

Ultimately the answer is situational, we’ve sworn no oath to save lives but our career choices have led us to a profession that most people would see as requiring, or at very least encouraging, us to bring our skills to bear on hazards that endanger society.  We walk a ill-defined line between our duty to intervene and our duty to butt the hell out and mind our business. It’s a no-win proposition, intervene and be seen as an insufferable worrier and do-gooder or walk away and be branded a coward or sociopath.

For a related post go to


#behaviour-based-safety, #culture-change, #dont-hurt-yourself, #duty-to-save, #fabricating-and-metalworking-magazine, #philip-la-duke, #philip-laduke, #rockford-greene, #worker-safety