Course 700 - Introduction to Safety Management

Element 2: Accountability

Does this picture show an unsafe practice? Yes!


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.

1. Desired safety behaviors will be sustained only through the appropriate application of _____.

a. total enforcement
b. effective consequences
c. zero tolerance
d. behavioral controls

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What is Accountability?

Accountability and responsibility are not the same.

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.

  • Responsibility may be thought of as simply the obligation to fulfill a task. To be responsible, you need only be assigned one or more duties.
  • Accountability may be thought of as establishing the obligation to fulfill a task to standard or else. When you are held accountable, your performance is measured against specific criteria or standards, and appropriate consequences are applied.

2. When your performance is measured and consequences are applied by the employer, you are _____.

a. held accountable
b. assigned responsibility
c. designated
d. authorized

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The Six Elements of an Effective Accountability System

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.

Clearly state standards of performance.

Element 1: Formal Standards of Performance

To ensure effective accountability in an SMS, employers should first establish formal performance standards that:

  • Safety policies and disciplinary procedures should be clearly stated in writing and made available to everyone;
  • educate all employees on these policies and procedures; and
  • require initial and annual certification that employees have read, understand, and will comply with safety policies and procedures.
Safety policies and disciplinary procedures must be clearly stated in writing and made available to everyone.

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.

3. Management may NOT be justified in administering discipline _____.

a. unless they have received competent-person training
b. if OSHA does not approve the accountability program
c. without clearly written and communicated standards
d. unless top executives participate

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Element 2: Adequate Resources and Psychosocial Support

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.

We can't work safe while overly stressed!
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  • Physical resources: These resources help to ensure safe and healthful conditions and exposures. Examples include:
    • safe tools, equipment, and machinery,
    • non-hazardous materials,
    • ergonomic workstations, and
    • well-designed facilities.
  • Psychosocial support: Examples of psychosocial factors that increase stress include job dissatisfaction, monotonous work, the pressure to work fast, limited job control, and lack of positive consequences. Psychosocial support that can reduce stress includes:
    • safety education and training,
    • reasonable work schedules and production quotas,
    • human resource programs,
    • safe work procedures,
    • competent management, and
    • tough-caring leadership.

4. Before employers are justified in administering discipline, they should first ensure they have provided _____.

a. complete control of the work environment
b. adequate physical resources and psychosocial support
c. policies that limit decision-making
d. a hazard-free work environment

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Measure performance.

Element 3: A System of Performance Measurement

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:

  • Accident rates
  • Experience modification rate (MOD Rate)
  • Workers' compensation costs

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:

  • Involvement in safety management system formulation and implementation;
  • Developing effective safety policies, programs, procedures;
  • Arranging management/supervisor safety training;
  • Providing physical resources and psychosocial support;
  • Involvement in safety education/training;
  • Supporting involvement in the safety committee.

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:

  • Making sure workers have safe materials, tools, equipment, machinery, etc.
  • Ensuring a healthful psychosocial environment
  • Following company safety rules
  • Conducting safety inspections
  • Enforcing safety rules
  • Training safe work procedures
  • Recognizing employees for safety
  • Conducting safety meetings

Employees: Measurement of employees should include appropriate behaviors such as:

  • Complying with company safety rules
  • Reporting injuries immediately
  • Reporting hazards
  • Making suggestions
  • Involvement in safety activities

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.

5. Accident rates and other measures over which the employer has little control are called _____.

a. resultant indicators
b. leading indicators
c. lagging indicators
d. dependent indicators

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Accountability and Control

No control, No discipline
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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.

6. When should a person be held accountable for an assigned responsibility?

a. Whenever a supervisor asks them to do anything needed
b. They should never be held accountable without representation
c. Only when management forces them to be responsible for behaviors
d. If they have control, authority, and ability to perform to the standard

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Be careful, or you'll suffer the natural consequences!

Element 4: Application of Effective Consequences

What is a consequence?

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:

Examples the demonstrate a cause and a consequence:

  • If you hit your thumb with a hammer (the cause), the natural consequence is pain, injury, embarrassment, etc. (the consequence)
  • If you think safety is not important, you take unsafe shortcuts that can get you injured.
  • If a supervisor yells at you for something you have done, you might yell back, apologize, go home, or even quit.

Is there any escape from 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).

Every cause has an effect. Every action has a consequence.

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.

7. In the statement, "If you hit your thumb with a hammer, your thumb will hurt," which part of the statement describes the effect?

a. "If you hit"
b. "with a hammer"
c. "If you hit your thumb"
d. "your thumb will hurt"

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Positive and Negative Reinforcement

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.

A sincere handshake can go a long way!

Positive Reinforcement

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:

Each of the following are important consequences of positive reinforcement:

  • It will increase desired behavior.
  • The desired behaviors may actually be safe or unsafe.
  • Workers perform to receive a positive consequence.
  • 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:

  • Safe behavior is reinforced: If you comply with safety rules, the supervisor thanks you.
  • Unsafe behavior is reinforced: If you take safety shortcuts to get work done ahead of schedule, your supervisor gives you time off.

Negative Reinforcement

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:

Each of the following are important outcomes of negative reinforcement:

  • Workers perform only to avoid the perceived negative consequence - nothing else.
  • The desired behavior may actually be safe or unsafe.
  • The intent is to increase desired behaviors by withholding an unwanted consequence.
  • Workers perform to minimum standard but not beyond: just enough to stay out of trouble.
  • The focus is on compliance, not excellence. - it's a fear-based strategy.
  • This strategy is less effective if the goal is to achieve a world-class safety culture.

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:

  • Safe behavior is reinforced: If you comply with safety rules, the supervisor says you won't be reprimanded.
  • Unsafe behavior is reinforced: If you take safety shortcuts to get work done ahead of schedule, your supervisor does not get upset.

8. Which of the following consequence strategies most likely causes workers to perform far beyond minimum standards?

a. Positive reinforcement
b. Negative reinforcement
c. Negative punishment
d. Positive punishment

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Positive and Negative Punishment

One winner - many losers! Positive reinforcement for one - negative punishment for many.

Positive Punishment

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

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.

Why Recognition Programs Fail

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.

9. Recognition programs that reward an employee for being first, best, or most improved are less effective because _____.

a. everyone considers themselves as winners
b. they produce many winners but only one loser
c. they create one winner and many losers
d. they recognize everyone for participation

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Never ignore good performance!

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.

  • It is the withdrawal of recognition;
  • 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.

  • Workers eventually perform without an expectation of recognition.
  • No relationship with management exists.
  • It is the most common form of consequence in the workplace - It's epidemic in organizations.
  • Examples of the thoughts and beliefs produced when people are ignored include:

    • "It doesn't matter how hard I work around here."
    • "Apathy is rampant, but who cares."

Ignoring desired behaviors leads to the extinction of desired behaviors.

10. What is the effect of ignoring desired behaviors in the workplace?

a. An increase in desired behaviors
b. The extinction of desired behaviors
c. A decrease of undesired behaviors
d. The elimination of undesired behaviors

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Element 5: Appropriate Application of Consequences

A good way to remember your obligations.

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:

  • they are justified;
  • they correspond to the degree of positive or negative impact; and
  • they are applied consistently throughout the entire organization.

Are Consequences Justified?

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:

  1. Supervision — Managers and supervisors should ask, "Did I catch the employee violating safety rules before they got hurt?" By definition, adequate supervision means "detecting and correcting hazards and unsafe behaviors before they cause injuries or illnesses." If supervisors work in the office all day, it’s not possible to oversee the work employees are doing. Lack of supervision is a major reason disciplining employees after an accident may be inappropriate.
  2. Training — Managers and supervisors should ask, "Do I provide (or does the employee receive) adequate safety training?" Managers and supervisors must provide employees with the required knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) to comply with safety requirements.
  3. Accountability — Managers and supervisors should ask, "Do I apply safety accountability fairly and consistently?" Do employees believe I will discipline them if they're caught violating safety rules? Or, do they know all you will do is shake your finger and threaten them without following through? If supervisors allow employees to violate safety rules sometimes, all justification for discipline disappears.
  4. Resources — Do employees have the physical resources and psychosocial support to comply with safety requirements? Supervisors need to provide adequate tools, equipment, materials that make it possible for employees to work safely.
  5. Support — Managers and supervisors should ask, "Do I provide the employee with a safe and healthful workplace?" Supervisors should also manage workloads, schedules, employee relations so that the workplace is as stress free as possible. When the employee believes working fast is more important than working safely, supervisors are failing in this area.

If you Regularly Recognize and Reward, you'll Rarely have to Reprimand.

11. Which of the following is NOT an appropriate criterion for consequences?

a. They are justified
b. They always take the form of a reprimand
c. They correspond to the impact
d. They are applied consistently

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Consequences (Continued)

Impact and Consequences

Consequences increase as impact and position increase.

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.

Position and Consequences

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.

Consistent Application of Consequences

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.

12. Before administering discipline, supervisors should first _____.

a. make sure everyone knows they will be reprimanded
b. be sure they consistently reprimand for every violation
c. confirm they have fulfilled their own obligations
d. make sure they are legally covered

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Element 6: Continuous Evaluation of the Accountability System

Continually evaluate to continually improve.
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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:

  • Identification: Inspect the accountability system policies, plans, procedures, processes to identify what exists.
  • Analysis: Dissect and thoroughly study each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, process to understand what they look like. The devil is in the detail.
  • Evaluation: Compare and contrast each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, process against benchmarks and best practices to judge their effectiveness.

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.

  • specific performance expectations;
  • who is Accountable - both management and employee; and
  • appropriate Consequences such as progressive discipline.

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.

13. Which two accountability program elements will OSHA primarily look at during an evaluation?

a. Supervision and support
b. Training and orientation
c. Policy and consequences
d. Support and leadership

Check your Work

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.

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