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Ensuring Accountability


The supervisor, as an "agent of the employer," is charged with carrying out a very important responsibility; that of holding employees accountable for their actions. And, of course, the supervisor himself or herself is held accountable for carrying out this very important leadership responsibility.

Before a safety accountability system can be effectively implemented and applied, it must be understood. It's important to understand what accountability is, and how it functions to ensure safety system effectiveness. To better understand accountability, let's answer some very important questions:

  • What is accountability?
  • What are the behaviors for which an employee should be held accountable?
  • How does a supervisor measure those employee behaviors?
  • What are the obligations management must fulfill before holding employees accountable?
  • What are appropriate and effective consequences?

With the above questions in mind, let's take a look at accountability in the workplace, and how we can implement and apply it.


If we reference Webster's Dictionary, "accountable" is defined as being "responsible, liable, explainable, legally bound, subject to". In the workplace, employees are obligated to comply with policies, rules, and standards. Accountability implies that our performance is measured, and that it will result in consequences that depend on our failure or success to meet the expected standards for which we are responsible.

Check out 6 important elements that should be present in your workplace to make sure you have an effective safety accountability system from our partner HSE Press Journal! Click here.

Accountability Systems

Now that we're a little more familiar with the concept of accountability, let's examine what an effective accountability system looks like. There are five critical elements to an effective accountability system. Each of these elements must be present, or the system will be doomed to fail.

Element 1: Established standards of performance

Established standards inform everyone about expected levels of performance and behavior. Standards of performance should be in writing and clearly stated so that everyone understands them.

Standards of performance include the mission and vision statements, policies, written plans, job descriptions, procedures, and safety rules.

Accountability Systems (Continued)

Element 2: Resources to achieve those standards

If the employer is going to hold employees accountable to perform to standards, he or she has the obligation to ensure that those employees are provided the resources to achieve those standards. This obligation is detailed in OSHA's "General Duty" clause below.

OSHA Act 1970. Section 5. Duties

(a) Each employer (1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees; (2) shall comply with occupational safety and health standards promulgated under this Act.

The employer may not be justified in administering progressive discipline unless all resources to help employees achieve established standards are provided. If, in fact. all resources are provided, the employer

will probably have many opportunities to recognize and reward employees for meeting and exceeding those standards. What resources are necessary? That depends on the task, but generally employees should be provided:

  • Safe tools, equipment, machinery, materials and facilities so employees can safely produce or provide the highest quality products or service. The place of employment should also provide a healthful physical environment that ensures minimum exposure to extremes in noise, toxic chemicals, hazardous atmospheres, and temperatures.

  • Work procedures and practices that makes sure employees are free from hazards that will cause serious injury or illness. It also means a healthful psychosocial environment that minimizes distress by making sure employees have adequate control over the various aspects of their work life. This includes healthful relationships with co-workers and management.

Accountability Systems (Continued)

Element 3: A system of measurement


Once performance standards are established, processes should be developed to measure employee and manager behaviors against those standards. You are probably familiar with the process OSHA uses to measure your employer's safety performance. They conduct workplace inspections and issue citations.

Measurement implies more than merely observing behaviors. It's actually keeping track: quantifying behaviors. You put numbers to something. In the workplace, it's important that supervisors measure their employees' safety behaviors. And, managers should be measuring supervisors' activities. OSHA measures employer performance through an inspection process. They measure, they do not merely observe. And, as you know, OSHA issues citations that may include monetary penalties.

In an effective accountability system, the employer also conducts inspections to measure how well employees at all levels are meeting the established standards in element one. Take a look at more information on the measurement process.

By the way, to find out when/if your employer was last inspected/investigated by OSHA and the results, click here.

Accountability Systems (Continued)

Element 4: Appropriate application of effective consequences

Without the expectation of consequences, accountability has no credibility and will not be effective. No consequences=no accountability. Effective consequences should meet certain criteria to be effective. This is the element with which everyone is probably most familiar. Unfortunately, in some companies, consequences are either not appropriate, not effective, or both.

Criteria for Appropriate Consequences

  • They are justified.
  • They correspond to the degree of positive or negative results of the behavior.
  • They are applied consistently throughout the entire organization.

Are Consequences Justified?

A basic rule for any accountability system states that, "a person should be held accountable for a responsibility only if that person has control of the resources or the ability to fulfill that responsibility." If a person is being measured and held accountable for results over which they have no control, the person will attempt to gain control of those results somehow. That attempt may take the form of inappropriate behaviors. For example, a supervisor who's measured only on department accident rates may threaten to fire anyone who completes an OSHA injury report. Not only is the supervisor's behavior counterproductive for the company, it's illegal.

Your work schedule, the quality of materials provided, work assignments, production quotas, and the co-workers you work with, describe common aspects of your job that you may have little control over. Consequently, you should not be held accountable for these. On the other hand, how well you adhere to procedures, policies, rules, and carry out safety responsibilities are a personal behaviors over which you do have some or complete control. You can choose to meet expectations or choose to "do it your way." The decision is yours to make. Therefore, accountability is appropriate.

Do consequences correspond the impact of the behavior?

  • Consequences should increase with the severity of the potential injury or illness that might result from the behavior. If an employee performs an unsafe work practice that could result in a fatal injury to himself or another employee, that certainly warrants a serious consequence. On the other hand, if an employee violates a safety rule that would not result in an injury or illness, a less serious consequence may be more appropriate. Progressive discipline should be carefully considered.

  • Consequences should increase with the level of responsibility of the person performing the behavior. If an employee neglects to perform a safe work practice such as wearing his or her eye protection, discipline may be in order. However, if a supervisor or manager neglects to wear eye protection, a more severe level of discipline would be in order because of the position of responsibility they assume. The supervisor or manager, in fact, gives permission for all employees to do the same. The negative impact on the safety of employees has the potential to be much greater when the supervisor or manager violates a safety rule.

    On the other hand, if employees, supervisors or managers do something positive, the net impact should be considered and result in recognition and/reward should correspond to the degree to which their performance improved safety.

Are consequences applied consistently?

To build a high level of trust between management and labor, consequences, both positive and negative, must be applied consistently at all levels of the organization. Once again, it's critically important to remember that an employee should be held accountable only for that which he or she has control.

Five Very Important Leadership Questions

It's critical to understand that before administering progressive discipline supervisors should first evaluate (make a judgment about) how well they have fulfilled their own accountabilities. This is important to make sure they are displaying effective leadership and justified in administering corrective actions.

Determining if discipline is appropriate does not have to be difficult. It can be a simple straightforward process. All that's required is that you honestly answer "yes" to the following five questions about leadership:

  1. Supervision. Have I provided adequate safety oversight? I'm not stuck in my office all day. I'm overseeing their work regularly so that I'm able to "catch" unsafe behaviors and hazardous conditions before they cause an injury.
  2. Training. Have I provided (or has the employee received) quality safety training? The employee has the required knowledge and skills to comply. The employee understands the natural and system consequences of noncompliance.
  3. Accountability. Have I applied safety accountability fairly and consistently in the past? The employee knows he or she will be disciplined if caught.
  4. Resources. Have I provided the tools, equipment, PPE, fall protection and other resources to do that job safely? Tools, equipment, machinery, PPE, etc. always in good working order.
  5. Support. Have I provided adequate psychosocial support that promotes working safe?

If you, as a supervisor, can honestly answer "yes" to each of the above questions, you are demonstrating effective leadership and it may be appropriate to administer discipline because you have fulfilled your obligations. However, other safety management system weaknesses may exist that make discipline unjustified. If you cannot honestly answer "yes" to each question, it's probably more appropriate to apologize to the employee for failing to meet one or more obligations, and make a commitment to meet those obligations in the future.

You can take the "Five Stars" leadership test by clicking on the Exercise tab.

Two Sides to the Accountability Coin

Some companies think accountability is only about administering progressive discipline. They emphasize only negative consequences that result from a failure to meet standards of performance. In reality, an effective accountability system administers consequences for all behaviors in a balanced manner: consequences appropriate to the level of performance. So, what form should those consequences take?

Let's take a look at the consequences that might result from two categories of employee/management safety behavior:

  • Meeting or exceeding standards, and
  • Failing to meet standards.

Meeting or exceeding standards: To restate in an effective accountability system, positive recognition is given regularly (and hopefully often) for meeting or exceeding employer expectations.

If your company does not have a formal safety recognition program, take a look at some examples.

Failing to meet standards: in some companies, this is unfortunately the only category that results in consequences. In an effective safety culture, corrective actions are rare and perceived as positive in the long term. Usually (not always), corrective actions involve some sort of progressive discipline

Accountability Systems (Continued)

Element 5: A process to evaluate the accountability system

Although as a supervisor, you may not be responsible for formally evaluating the accountability system, but it's good to know that someone is. Usually, the safety coordinator and/or safety committee are involved in this activity. In some "state-plan" states, like Oregon, the safety committee is required by law to conduct an evaluation of the employer's accountability system.

The process usually involves three activities:

  • Assessment: you inspect the accountability system policies, plans, procedures, and processes to identify what exists.

  • Analysis: you then dissect and thoroughly study each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, and process to understand what they look like. The devil is in the detail.

  • Evaluation: finally, you compare and contrast each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, and process against benchmarks and best practices to judge their effectiveness.

If you believe there are weaknesses in your employer's accountability system, make sure to take notes on the behaviors and conditions you see in the workplace that may be pointing to accountability system policies, plans, processes, and procedures that are inadequate or missing.

Last words

Accountability is an extremely important element in the safety and health management system. Having a firm understanding of the concept and program will help ensure success.


Check out this historical film which was the fifth in a series of five USAF safety training films dealing with general safety issues. Produced by Graphic Films of Los Angeles, where Douglas Trumbull (who did effects for "2001 a Space Odyssey") once worked.


Before beginning this quiz, we highly recommend you review the module material. This quiz is designed to allow you to self-check your comprehension of the module content, but only focuses on key concepts and ideas.

Read each question carefully. Select the best answer, even if more than one answer seems possible. When done, click on the "Get Quiz Answers" button. If you do not answer all the questions, you will receive an error message.

Good luck!

1. Employees are generally accountable for all of the following behaviors, except _____.

2. Which of the following is an inappropriate accountability measure for supervisors?

3. Which of the following is not a mandatory employer performance measure OSHA uses to evaluate employers?

4. Which of the following is not a criterion for appropriate consequences?

5. Which of the following activities is not conducted to improve the accountability system?

Have a great day!

Important! You will receive an "error" message unless all questions are answered.