Jan 15, 2018

Who is accountable for safety?

Accountability needs to be specific and measurable

By Dave Fennell


Possibly the most frequently asked question that I receive is “Who is accountable for safety?” I have been hearing this question since I first started working in safety 31 years ago and I still hear it to this day — and I’m sure I will continue to hear it in 2018 and beyond. It has been asked by management, workers, regulators, developers of safety programs and even by the safety professionals who themselves are supposed to have the answer. The question is simple but the answers are as varied and complex as the workplaces and people therein.

The easy answer is “everyone.” While there is a degree of truth to that answer, when we make everyone accountable, it translates into no one being accountable. The accountability becomes diffused and can be justified as belonging to someone else. Accountability needs to be specific and it needs to be measurable, otherwise the diffusion erodes the personal connection to the specific aspects of safety.

To move beyond everyone (read no one) being accountable, we must break safety down into some specific components and then assign accountability. We must also understand the close relationship between accountability, measurement and control. The principles here are:

•What gets measured gets done, meaning, we need to be able to measure the aspects of safety we hold individuals accountable for.

•A measurement is only useful if it creates action.

•People are held accountable for what they have control over — not for that which they have no control.

•Individuals at different levels in an organization are held accountable for different aspects of safety.

Senior management is accountable for the safety results and the culture of the organization. Results at this level are measured in the traditional metrics such as injuries, injury frequencies, other incidents and assessments of the safety management systems (such as audit results). The control over these aspects of safety for senior management come with the effectiveness of the safety management systems that they have put in place and for which they are responsible. The ability to create action comes with this control.

As we move to the front-line workers, the amount of control over the corporate results diminishes. For example, a front-line worker in an organization may not have any control over an incident in another part of the organization that has impacted the company’s injury frequency. It makes no sense to either punish or reward that individual for that corporate result. Yes, I am saying that programs that reward individuals for corporate results are ineffective and inappropriate. However, workers do need to know how their organization is doing when it comes to safety and understand how their actions contribute to the overall results.

Workers must be held accountable for safety activities that contribute to the overall results. These activities need to include conforming to procedures and standards, identifying hazards, reporting near misses, using the correct tools, participating in safety meetings, participating in  pre-job safety plans and executing the work according to those plans. A worker has control over these activities and they can be measured;  therefore, front-line workers need to be held accountable for them.

The measurements may include simple tracking of hazards, attendance at safety meetings and near misses. Or they could be more sophisticated measurements based on observations of the workers and how well they conform to the standards, follow the safe work plans and use the tools and equipment. These more sophisticated measurements are aligned with the key elements of an effective behaviour observation program.

Senior management has less control over these individual safety activities. They may not be in a position to see every hazard or near miss and would not be using the tools, equipment or procedures. But there does remain some accountability at the senior level for these activities since they will be defined in the safety management system, for which they are ultimately accountable.

And now we get to the critical part of this accountability discussion: the supervisors. They are right in the middle of all of this and are the vital link between management and front-line workers. They have a degree of accountability for both results and activities, because they have some control over each. Supervisors need to understand and speak the safety language of senior management in terms of safety results, frequencies and statistics and they need to be able to translate that into the activities and language of the front-line worker. They may get a safety communication from senior management that describes unsatisfactory safety performance in terms of injury frequency (for example, “Your total recordable incident rate is 30 per cent higher than the company average”) and now must translate that into the expected activities for the front-line workers (“We need to increase the number of inspections of our workplace, specifically looking for tripping hazards”).

Am I suggesting that supervisors must know as much as senior management about result measures for safety and as much as front-line workers about the specific safety activities of the work? Yes! But let’s not use the supervisor as our safety scapegoat. Senior management is accountable to ensure that the right supervisors are chosen and assigned for the work. Management is accountable to ensure the supervisors have the appropriate training and resources to be able to execute their work, and management must ensure that they have provided the most effective safety management systems for their supervisors to work with.

Senior management is accountable for safety results. Workers are accountable for safety activities. Supervisors have accountability for both and with support from their safety professionals, must understand and be able to communicate effectively in both realms of safety. Clear and specific accountabilities at all levels are a critical aspect of effective safety systems.