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Workers in Chemical Plant Essay

The workplace presents a paradox. First, for many employees, the workplace is an area of productivity, creativity, harmony, and friendship where people work together for the common good. But then for some, the workplace can also be unsafe, terrifying, and offers no security to employees, where many civil rights violation and discrimination occur. In many hazardous working environments, employees’ lives are always on the line. Such irony is common in all work areas but mostly in processing and chemical plants where danger is real and imminent.

“U.S. companies’ accident rates are alarmingly high. According to one estimate, employees lost eighty million workdays in 2002 from workplace injuries, and more than 3.7 million people suffered disabling injuries on the job that year (Kleiman, n.d.).”

It is general knowledge that chemical plants are dangerous workplaces. It is also general knowledge that to avoid hazards and protect employees, companies must adhere to safety working standards set by the government to prevent loss of lives on the part of the employees and loss of profit (fines, insurances, etc) on the part of the company. Strict adherence would logically mean, imposing the standards to all employees involved in running the plant, without any exceptions.

It is of utmost

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apprehension then that a Chief Executive Officer of a company would opt to let the workers in her chemical plant decide for themselves whether to or not work overtime in the more dangerous parts of the enterprise; and whether or not to wear protective equipment; and as if adding insult to injury, the CEO does this based on moral grounds. Clearly, one is bound to question, “what moral grounds”?

Famous ethical theories such as Act Utilitarianism, Universal Acceptability and Rule Utilitarianism would beg to disagree on the CEO’s liberal view of morality in the workplace. First off, individual rights can be respected and appreciated in the workplace in ways other than allowing them to make decisions about working in a dangerous area or not. The presence of trade unions, supporting affirmative action against employee discrimination and establishing code of conducts for fair and ethical work practices are only few examples to practice liberalism in employment.

As Mason (1982, p. 183) pointed out, “though liberalism emphasizes the individual, it describes the political as a sphere divorced from the life of most individuals, thus according it little value. The political is what is public, and what is public is captured forthrightly by government. Government should be capable of protecting individual life, liberty, and property, but beyond that it should be restricted. After all, the government that governs least, governs best.”

Act Utilitarianism (AU) ethical theory in “its most basic version states that we must ask ourselves what the consequences of a particular act in a particular situation will be for all those affected. If its consequences bring more total good then those of any alternative course of action, then this action is the right one (as cited in Shaw, 2007, p.56).” If one will examine carefully the consequences of the CEO’s mandate, one will come to realize that the pain of following her statement, far outweigh the pleasure (happiness).

For instance, an employee upon his/her discretion would decide to work overtime in the plant every night thereby increasing his/her wage. This obviously will bring happiness to the person. Other employees might follow suit. This will in return, make the employer happy because then, production will increase. So it is a win-win situation one might believe. However, one must not forget that the job inside the plant is dangerous and deregulation of overtime work can lead employees to abuse it (in the interest of earning more) and thereby, lead to a possibility of injury or death due to human error resulting from successive overtime work. Futhermore, if not injury or death, successive overtime work can lead to fatigue reducing the productivity during daytime work thus, rendering the pursuit of happiness inept.

The case of whether or not to wear protective gear is playing double jeopardy, so to speak. Being in a dangerous plant with chemicals around, employees must have protection in the workplace. If the company will not impose it, there is a chance that employees might be too care less and hurt themselves, thus creating unhappiness even more.

However, following Kant’s theory of Universal Acceptability, it can be argued that individuals are capable of imposing sense of duty and acts of good will since the theory looks at each person as legislators of the moral law, self-imposing, self-recognizing, fully internalizing moral rules and principles (as cited in Shaw, 2007, p.62). Thus, in the case of the CEO, she might believe that her employees are rational beings; capable of deciding what is right from wrong and follow that which is good. For instance, if they want to earn more, they have to work overtime but impose safety precautions on themselves to avoid danger.

Yet, Kant further tests this theory by asking if the moral law is acceptable to all rational beings. “In other words, when you answer the question, “what should I do?” you must consider what all rational beings should do if the moral law is valid for you, it must be valid for all rational beings (as cited in Shaw, 2007, p.63).” In deciding about moral laws, Kant suggested to put oneself into another person’s situation (as cited in Shaw, 2007, p.63). Taking Kant’s advice would lead one to ask: ‘can the CEO’s mandate apply to all employees and even to all chemical plantations in the whole world?’

The obvious answer to the question is ‘no’. The mandate can not apply to all because letting workers work without strictly subjecting them to safety standards is endangering their lives and the lives of other people. Furthermore, if the mandate will serve as moral code to all chemical plants in the world, it might not necessarily lessen occupational accidents but even increase it since workers are practically allowed to work with or without protective gear, even work overtime for as long and as often as they choose to be.

To further drive the point, consider the welfare of pregnant women workers or women workers of child bearing years that might be victims of accidents in the workplace. Affirmative Action among companies has allowed women to get employment even in “male-dominated” industries (as cited in Shaw, 2007, p.466). Because of this development, companies have greater responsibilities to secure the workplaces and protect their workers at all times and at all costs, as a way of empowering women as workers and encouraging them to rise to equal footing with men in the workplace.

Therefore, the CEO’s order is folly. The Occupational Health & Safety Act introduced “two important provisions introduced in 1990: (1) the requirement for employers to have a health and safety policy and program; and (2) the direct responsibility that officers of a corporation have for health and safety (A Guide, 2002, p.2). What is the point of the government regulations on occupational health and safety if businesses will not follow it?

In an effort to save lives and prevent harm, whistle blowing is justified under the Complicity Theory of Michael Davis. The theory states that “we are morally obliged to avoid doing moral wrongs… we have an obligation to do what we reasonably can to set things right (as cited in Shaw, 2007, p.449).”          

There are various conditions that Davis had set before a whistle blow can be considered theoretically justifiable. Moral requirement to reveal information to the public is needed when first, “what you will reveal derives from your work for an organization; second, you are a voluntary member of that organization; third, you believe that the organization, though legitimate is engaged in serious moral wrongdoing; fourth, you believe that your work for that organization will contribute (more or less directly) to the wrong if ( but not only if) you do not publicly reveal what you know; fifth, you are justified in the  third and fourth beliefs; and sixth, third and fourth beliefs are true (as cited in Shaw, 2007, p.449).”

In the case of the whistleblower’s plan to reveal the CEO’s decision, it is evident that the whistleblower has passed all conditions of the Complicity Theory. First, the whistleblower is from the inside the organization and a voluntary member (being an employee and not a slave). Second, the whistleblower believes that the CEO is seriously putting in danger all the workers by releasing the mandate on self-regulation, thus accounting for “moral wrong.”

Third, the whistleblower believes that public revelation of the CEO’s directive will contribute to the good. And fourth, the whistleblower has reasonable reasons to believe the present and imminent danger that can ensue, and lastly, the whistleblower believes that the information is true.

The complicity theory does not even warrant filing a complaint to the company against the CEO’s decision, because then, it would contradict with the 4th condition that the only way to right a wrong is to reveal it publicly. Although there is no guarantee that revealing the information publicly will prevent harm, the whistleblower will do so to prevent complicity.

Another theory that ties and binds the argument presented here against the CEO’s command is the Rule Utilitarian. Under this theory, public revelation or whistle blowing is considered the ultimate act of moral conduct in this situation. The theory is different from Utilitarian because it goes beyond the analyses of units of happiness and actually considers the consequences that result in following a rule of conduct. In other words, it is not concerned with the result of the action but the long term consequences of it.

Rule Utilitarianism “maintains that the utilitarian standard should be applied not to individual actions but to moral codes as a whole (as cited in Shaw, 2007, p.70). In essence, the only rule governing Rule Utilitarianism is utility. Every act, every decision is evaluated according its utility in order to produce the maximum happiness. As much as possible, no room for unhappiness must exist. The Rule Utilitarianism measures the consequences of the act repeated over and over again through time as if it were to be followed as a rule whenever similar circumstances arise.

In the scenario presented, the rule utilitarian would need to consider the long term consequences if companies or managements would exercise individual rights in the workplace especially in a chemical plant. If employees will be left to decide for themselves their own security and safety precautions, then there wouldn’t be a standard way of doing the work in the dangerous part of the plant. As a result of this lack of standard, employees lives might be put at risk and even jeopardize the operation of the facility.

In the same principle, the rule utilitarian might calculate that people would no longer be able to trust their employees to protect them in the workplace and also trust the government to set up regulations to control occupational hazards, and this would break down the confidence they need for their work to be effective.  The rule utilitarian might calculate that there is far more harm in allowing self-regulation in industries with highly-volatile workplace environment and so the good is to reveal the anomaly in the decision.

 “Rule Utilitarianism seeks to determine the specific set of principles that would in fact best promote total happiness for society. Those are the rules we should promulgate, instill in our selves and teach to the next generation (as cited in Shaw, 2007, p.72).”

In assessing ethics and moral issues in the workplace, there are many theories to consider. These theories ought to help one to choose the right decision, one that will benefit others and not one’s own vested interests; and ultimately, one that will promote the welfare of the public. One must always consider the consequences of the acts not just for one day but in the long run, and the people that are going to be affected in the future.


Kleiman, L.S. Safety in the workplace. In Business Reference. Retrieved 2 April 2008 from,


Mason, R. M. (1982). Participatory and Workplace Democracy: A Theoretical Development in

Critique of Liberalism. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. Retrieved April 2, 2008, from Questia database: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=24484260

Ministry of Labour. (2002). A Guide to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Ontario:

Queen’s Printer. Retrieved 2 April 2008, from <http://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/pdf/ohsa_g.pdf>

Shaw, W. H., & Barry V. (2007). Moral issues in business. (10th ed.). CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.

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