Accountability ranks right at the top with management commitment as a critical element in a company's safety and health management system. Accountability is one of the answers to the question, "why do we behave the way we do in the workplace?" So, we must understand what it is and how it should work as part of the safety management system.
Management may impose all kinds of safety policies, programs, written plans, directives, rules, and training on the workforce, but as you'll soon learn, none of that effort will matter unless the appropriate application of effective consequences within a culture of accountability exists: only then will desired behaviors be sustained. Employees must believe they will be held accountable for their decisions and actions, or the safety management system is ultimately doomed to failure.
You hear the terms "responsibility" and "accountability" a lot when dealing with safety and health. Sometimes, people speak as though the two terms have the same meaning. As used in OSHA standards and throughout our courses, these two terms have very different meanings. Let's find out why.
Go get your dictionary. You'll find responsibility and accountability defined something like:
Responsible - expected or obliged to account for or answer to; involving obligation or duties. Responsibility - able to account for or answer to.
Accountable - responsible; liable; legally bound or subject to giving an account (or explanation), answerable. Accountability - able to give an account or answer to.
If you examine only these two definitions, it's understandable why you might conclude that they have virtually the same meaning. However, the notion of being "liable or legally bound" gives accountability an added meaning. When applying these two concepts to management in the workplace, they take on very important and distinct differences in meaning and application.
Accountability is one of the most important elements within the safety management system. The safety manager and safety committee may use the guidelines in the six elements of an accountability system to help design, develop, and deploy an effective accountability system. With that in mind, let's take a look at each of the six elements.
To ensure effective accountability in an SMS, employers should first establish formal performance standards that:
If performance standards are not established and clearly communicated to employees, an effective accountability system is impossible. Management may not be justified in administering discipline without clearly written and communicated standards.
Before employers are justified in administering appropriate consequences, they should first provide their employees with the means and methods to achieve the standards of performance that have been established. Employers should provide a safe and healthful physical workplace and supportive psychosocial work environment.
Once again, when applied to safety behavior and performance, being held accountable demands more than simply being answerable. In an effective accountability system the quality or level of safety performance is measured regularly and often.
Measurement processes include informal/formal observations. Real measurement means more than merely observing behaviors. It also includes quantifying observations — adding up the numbers. Those numbers form the statistics that you can use to improve the safety management system.
Click on the buttons to see measured safety behaviors and performance at various organizational levels:
Top/mid-level managers: Unfortunately, measurement at this level typically includes lagging indicators or results statistics over which top managers actually have little direct control. These measures include:
This situation may cause top managers to pressure supervisors to hold down the number of accidents in their departments. Consequently, the result may be an ineffective measurement at all levels. Appropriate leading indicator behaviors and activities to measure at top/mid-level management include:
Supervisors: Supervisors may not completely control the results (such as the accident rate) of their work area. They do, however, have the ability to control their safety management and leadership activities. Therefore, measurement at this level should primarily include personal safety behaviors and activities such as:
Employees: Measurement of employees should include appropriate behaviors such as:
After all is said and done, if the behaviors and activities above are expected and recognized, the results that we all worry about will take care of themselves. Improve the process and watch the outcome follow! Is this all "pie in the sky"? It doesn't have to be.
A basic rule for developing accountability is that a person should be held accountable only if they have control, authority, and the ability to meet the stated performance standard.
If managers, supervisors, and employees are held accountable for performance over which they have no control, they will try to gain control. That attempt may include inappropriate strategies.
For example, a supervisor who's measured only on department accident rates may threaten to fire anyone who completes an OSHA 301 Incident Report. Not only is that supervisor's behavior counterproductive for the company, but it's also illegal!
OSHA believes the employer has ultimate control of the operations and employees that make up the day-to-day work environment. Therefore, OSHA only measures employer performance and administers appropriate consequences if the employer fails to perform to standard. Therefore, OSHA does not cite employees.
Although employees may have very little control over their responsibilities, they do have control over their personal behavior. Employees have the ability to make a choice to work safe, or to take chances.
A "consequence" is anything that happens as a result of something that happens. Another way to express it is to think of cause and effect: the initial behavior is the "cause," and the consequence is the "effect" of the cause. For every cause, there is an effect.
In each example below, the initial behavior or action is the cause, and the reaction is the effect or consequence. Let's look at some examples:
Click the button to see some more examples of causes and resulting consequences:
Not in the workplace. It's important to understand there is no such thing as "no consequence" for an action. There is ALWAYS a consequence.
For instance, if a supervisor thanks a worker for making a safety suggestion, the supervisor's recognition is a consequence (positive). If the supervisor ignores the worker who made the safety suggestion, the "act" of ignoring is also a consequence (negative).
Effective consequences increase desired behaviors and decrease undesired behaviors. If an employee’s safety performance meets or exceeds the employer's standards, some sort of recognition should follow. On the other hand, if the employee makes an informed choice not to comply with the company's safety rules, appropriate corrective action should follow.
There are various strategies for administering positive and negative consequences. Careful planning is critical to ensure consequences are effective. Lets look at positive and negative reinforcement, and why positive reinforcement is best in producing a world-class safety culture.
Positive reinforcement uses consequence strategies that attempt to increase the frequency of desired behaviors through positive recognition and/or reward. Workers think that if they do something well, they will get recognized. Consequences for safe behaviors that meet or exceed expectations usually include some form of positive recognition and/or reward.
Click the button to see some of the consequences of using positive reinforcement:
Workers may perform far beyond minimum standards - discretionary effort.
If the desired behavior is to work safe, no matter what - it's a success-based strategy.
If the desired behavior is to work fast, not necessarily safe - it's a failure-based strategy.
This strategy is more effective if the goal is to achieve a world-class safety culture.
It's important to know that "desired" behaviors may not always be safe behaviors. Unfortunately, this may be true in some safety cultures where working fast rather than safe takes priority. This is especially true when the employer is under pressure to finish a project on time.
Here are some examples that show how perceived positive reinforcement can increase both safe and unsafe behaviors:
Negative reinforcement is the use of consequence strategies that attempt to increase the frequency of desired behaviors by withholding perceived negative consequences. Workers think that if they do something the employer wants, they will avoid negative consequences. If safety is what the employer wants, these strategies will be less effective because workers are only trying to do what is necessary to "stay out of trouble," but nothing more.
Click the button to see some of the consequences of using negative reinforcement:
Again, the outcome is dependent on the behaviors that the employer actually wants. Hopefully, the employer prioritizes safety, but that's not always the case. Here are some examples that show how perceived negative reinforcement can increase both safe and unsafe behaviors:
Positive punishment occurs when a worker's safety behavior or performance results in a perceived negative consequence that serves to decrease the probability of that behavior in the future.
For instance, a supervisor might yell at a worker who is violating safety rules. If the worker stops violating safety, the supervisor ceases yelling. The supervisor's yelling serves as a positive punishment because the supervisor adds an unpleasant response in the form of yelling.
Negative punishment occurs when a worker's behavior or performance results in the removal a perceived positive consequence. Removal of the consequence decreases the probability of that behavior in the future. For instance, the supervisor withholds positive recognition if workers do not achieve certain standards of behavior or performance.
Both positive reinforcement and negative punishment occur in safety recognition programs that reward one employee for being first, best, or most improved. At the same time the one winner receives positive reinforcement, everyone else receives negative punishment because they are, in fact, losers. Everyone else may have performed quite well, but since they were not the best, positive recognition is withheld. The result is one winner and many losers.
Recognition programs that reward only the best performer can actually demotivate most workers. This form of negative punishment is one of the primarily reasons safety recognition programs do not work. Recognition programs should be criterion-based that recognize everyone who meet the criteria for recognition. The goal is to have many winners who all meet or exceed management expectations.
Ignoring, intended or unintended, is actually a common form of negative punishment. You might think ignoring employee behaviors is actually withholding a consequence. No such luck. Every response, including ignoring, is a consequence. In fact, ignoring desired behaviors in the workplace is usually the least effective consequence because it leads to the extinction of those behaviors. Think about it. Have you ever been ignored when you thought you should have been recognized? I bet you were upset. And it didn't matter why you were ignored either: you didn't like it.
Click the button to see some of the characteristics and consequences of ignoring.
The worker is ignored and no matter what, desired behavior becomes less frequent. For instance:
If workers breaks safety rules and are ignored, they may perceive it as a positive consequence and will less likely behave safely in the future.
If workers complies with safety rules and is ignored, they may perceive it as a negative consequence and will more likely break safety rules in the future.
Without the expectation of consequences, accountability has no credibility and will not be effective. In other words, no consequences - no accountability. Consequences need to be appropriate as well as effective. Unfortunately, in some companies, consequences are either not appropriate, not effective, or both. Appropriate consequences meet the following criteria:
Positive consequences are appropriate and justified whenever anyone meets or exceeds desired expectations. Negative consequences are justified only after the person administering discipline has first fulfilled their own accountabilities.
If managers and supervisors discipline employees inappropriately, the negative impact on morale, safety, and production can be dramatic. Therefore, before administering discipline, managers and supervisors should answer 5 important questions to make sure they are justified.
Managers and supervisors can use the "STARS" acronym to help remember their five basic safety leadership obligations to employees.
Click the button to see more information on the STARS safety leadership obligations.
To help determine if you are justified when administering discipline, answer these questions:
The greater the positive or negative impact a behavior has, the greater the positive or negative consequence in response. If employees violate minor safety rules, the response would be less severe. However, if employees are repeat offenders or violate safety rules that could cause serious injuries, a more severe response would be necessary. Likewise, if employees exceed expectations, positive recognition should be the response.
Consequences should increase as the level of a person’s responsibility increases. This is true, especially for supervisors and managers. Because supervisors or managers are legally "agents of the employer," violating company safety rules transforms them into voluntary guidelines. A more severe level of discipline would be necessary for supervisors and managers because they, in effect, give permission to employees to violate safety rules. Consequently, the negative impact on outcomes has the potential to be much greater. Likewise, if supervisors and managers exceed expectations, greater positive recognition would be proper response.
To build a high level of trust between management and labor, apply accountability consistently at all levels of the organization: up and down, and across functions. Hold every employee, supervisor, and manager accountable in the same fair, consistent manner. If labor perceives that accountability applies only to them, they will naturally consider it unfair: the primary failure mode for accountability systems.
Although as a supervisor you may not be responsible for formally evaluating the accountability system, it’s good to know that someone is. Usually, evaluation of the accountability program involves the safety coordinator and/or safety committee. In some "state-plan" states, OSHA law requires the safety committee to evaluate the employer’s accountability system.
The process usually involves three levels of activity:
Evaluating for Accountability
OSHA looks primarily for two program elements when evaluating an employer for accountability: Policy and consequences. OSHA does not mandate or require specific recognition/disciplinary procedures: That’s the responsibility of the employer. But an effective accountability policy that is written and clearly communicated should be in place. Make sure your company has a written policy that addresses accountability, including these three key components.
If you believe there are weaknesses in your employer’s accountability system, take notes on the behaviors and conditions you see in the workplace that may point to accountability system policies, plans, processes, and procedures that are inadequate or missing.
Read the material in each section to find the correct answer to each quiz question. After answering all the questions, click on the "Check Quiz Answers" button to grade your quiz and see your score. You will receive a message if you forgot to answer one of the questions. After clicking the button, the questions you missed will be listed below. You can correct any missed questions and check your answers again.
Regardless of your operations and organization, accountability is what makes your safety system work. Dan Peterson tells how holding people accountable — top to bottom — eliminates accidents and injuries more than any other single approach. Learn more about Caterpillar's safety culture products.