Resources - OSHA Compliance

Managing Effective Safety Accountability Systems

When Harry Truman said, "The buck stops here," he meant that he was responsible for his decisions and accepted the consequences that followed them: He understood accountability. Many do not understand what accountability is. Consequently, they fail to plan and design an effective accountability system. To better understand what accountability discuss each part of this very important equation:

Accountability = Appropriate Behavior + Objective Evaluation g Effective Consequences

What is accountability?

Accountability may be thought of as the condition of being held liable or answerable for one's safety performance. It establishes an obligation to (1) perform assigned responsibilities, (2) at a prescribed level or standard. Accountability is fixed through the application of natural and system consequences.

What is OSHA's position on accountability?

OSHA believes accountability helps employees understand management's commitment to achieve and maintain a safe and healthful workplace. Their research indicates enforcement through a progressive disciplinary procedure is an indispensable piece of a whole approach to safety and health protection. There is little possibility of effective safety and health protection without carefully designed policies and rules for safe and healthful practices that cover all personnel, from the site manager to the hourly employee.

Since hourly employees are most often exposed to workplace hazards, it makes good sense to involve them in the establishment of safe work practices and safe work rules. Once safe work practices are established and employees understand why it is important to follow them, corrective disciplinary action may be rarely needed.

What does the law say?

The General Duty Clause of the OSHAct of 1970 furnishes some insight into five important employer safety accountabilities:

  • Compliance - with OSHA standards,
  • Resources - provide employees work processes and environment free from recognized hazards,
  • Training - all managers and employees,
  • Supervision - oversee employees in safe practices and procedures, and
  • Accountability - take reasonable measures to require employee compliance.

Accountability is a condition in the workplace

Accountability exists within the safety culture as a condition or state of being. An employee's sense of accountability is a felt internal condition or effect caused by the knowledge that failure to achieve standards of performance will lead to a consequence. Successful accountability exists when appropriate behavior is objectively evaluated and results in effective consequences. This can be expressed with the following equation:

Appropriate Behavior

It is appropriate to hold employees accountable for behaviors over which they have control. Generally, appropriate behaviors for employees include:

  • complying with safety policies and rules,
  • reporting injuries and hazards immediately
  • warning other employees of hazardous conditions or behaviors

It is not appropriate to hold employees accountable for behaviors and results over which they do not have control. For example, employees should not be held accountable for correcting a hazard if they only have authority to report it, not correct it. Employees should not be held accountable for the number of accidents they've suffered because, in most instances, they do not have control over the many factors that may have directly caused or contributed to the accident.

Working safe is a behavior and should be defined in behavioral terms such as, "using safe procedures and practices." Working safe should not be defined as a result with terms like, "working injury-free." In the workplace, lucky employees can work all year, regularly violating safety rules, and not get hurt. Other employees can consistently comply with safety rules, yet get injured. Using safe procedures and practices will reduce exposure and, therefore, probability of injury, but it does not eliminate the possibility. Bottom line, the following principle is fundamental to effective accountability:

When it comes to discipline, the accident is irrelevant.

Factual and Fair Evaluation

To be objective, the performance evaluation must be based on factual data rather than subjective hunches or feelings. To be perceived as fair, it must be motivated by a need to help, not hurt, the employee. The performance evaluation process will naturally take some time and should be carefully conducted to accurately:

  1. describe the event representing the performance discrepancy
  2. determine contributing surface causes, and
  3. uncover possible root causes.

For discipline to be justified, analysis of the behavior and evaluation of the safety management system (SMS) must occur prior to evaluation of the behavior. In most cases, due to the large number of possible variables (contributing surface and root causes) at play in an SMS, it is appropriate to assume that the SMS somehow contributed to the unsafe behavior. A thorough event analysis and system evaluation will result in two outcomes:

  1. The system failed. If a SMS failure (less than adequate physical resources/psychosocial support, enforcement, supervision, or training) contributes somehow to the unsatisfactory behavior, accident or not, discipline is most likely not justified. Rather, effective leadership would dictate some form of apology and commitment to make good on the failure.
  2. The system did not fail. If an honest and thorough evaluation indicates the SMS did not contribute somehow to the unsatisfactory behavior, accident or not, discipline is likely justified, and should be administered.

Effective Consequences

Regardless of the performance evaluation outcome, consequences will occur. Actually, there can not NOT be consequences. The challenge is to make sure consequences effectively increase the frequency of desired behavior. Consequences may be categorized as follows:

  • Natural Consequences. The natural consequences of employee behavior refer to their general state of physical or psychological health. When an accident occurs, the victim always experiences the natural consequence. If employees perform an unsafe behavior in a danger zone, they may naturally get hurt. Simply put, employees are punished (hurt) or rewarded (not hurt) by the hazard for what they do.
  • System Consequences. System consequences are administered by an external source such as another person or the organization. System consequences may include employee discipline or positive recognition. An employee caught violating a safety rule will always experience a system consequence. The employee may be disciplined, ignored, or even encouraged to violate the safety rule. If an employee suggests an improvement that streamlines a production process, he or she may be rewarded. Employees are punished or rewarded for what they do by someone else.

Effective discipline is progressive

OSHA requires a progressive disciplinary system. This does not mean that OSHA expects discipline to be administered liberally, but rather, that progressively more significant (or severe) consequences should be designed into the accountability system. The receiver of the discipline determines the significance of the discipline. If the unsatisfactory behavior continues, assume the disciplinary action was not perceived as significant to the employee. Consequently, progressively more significant discipline may be required. Hopefully, the employee will get the message early-on and decide to change his or her behavior in the desired direction.

What is a safety accountability system?

To make sure the condition of accountability for safety is effectively maintained in the workplace, an accountability system needs to designed and implemented. Understanding the concept of accountability as a system is important to all line and staff managers as well as employees. The various processes within an effective accountability system are critical to the success of an organization's SMS.

The intended purpose of a safety accountability system is to increase desired safety behaviors through a system of standards, measurement, evaluation, and consequences. Accountability systems are likely to fail if employers do not effectively design and implement a number of important processes and best practices. Six essential processes in an effective safety accountability system should be considered:

  1. Designing formal standards of behavior and performance. An effective safety accountability system requires written safety plans, policies, plans, programs, processes, procedures that are formulated by top management and clearly communicated to each employee.
  2. Providing resources and support to meet those standards. If management is going to hold employees accountable to achieve a given standard of safety performance, it can't "pass the buck." It takes on the obligation to provide the physical resources (tools, equipment, materials, workstations, facilities) and psychosocial support (education, training, scheduling, culture) to achieve those standards.
  3. Measuring behavior and performance. Measurement is more than mere observation of behavior. It requires quantification and evaluation of performance. Systems of measurement include informal and formal observation and feedback processes. Informal processes occur daily as a result of effective supervision that may be defined as "detecting and correcting a hazardous conditions and unsafe behaviors before they result in an injury." Formal evaluation includes scheduled performance reviews.

    In an effective safety management system, employees, from top mangers to line workers, are held accountable only for those responsibilities over which they have control. What an employee actually controls in the workplace depends on the position they hold. With greater assigned responsibility comes greater fixed accountability. Accountability follows control.

  4. Effective consequences. To be effective, consequences should be soon, certain, significant, and sincere. When employees perform unsafe behaviors, discipline should occur soon after it's established that safety management system weaknesses did not somehow contribute to those unsafe behaviors. Employees must know they'll be disciplined if they choose unsafe behaviors. They should perceive the discipline as being meaningful so that it changes behaviors in desired directions. For discipline to be perceived as tough-caring leadership, managers should communicate genuine concern for their employees' welfare. Effective discipline is primarily a function of leadership rather than management. Leaders discipline because they want to - because they care, not because it's management policy. To determine if discipline is effective, monitor the employee's degree of compliance after the discipline has been administered.
  5. Applying discipline appropriately. Discipline is considered only after management has determined that supervisors and managers at all levels have fulfilled their obligations to the employee. If management has, indeed, fulfilled its legal obligations, discipline is appropriate.

    Discipline should be based on objective facts, not subjective momentary feelings. It should be consistently administered throughout the entire organization.

    Discipline should be appropriate to the negative impact the infraction has on the individual and organization. For example, when employees perform unsafe acts, they violate an organization's safety rules. However, when managers perform those same unsafe acts, they not only violate safety rules, they actually revise enforced organizational safety policy such that (1) required behaviors become optional behaviors, and (2) the employer is in jeopardy of legal liability should an injuries occur. Thus, the severity of the consequence should be greater. Likewise, infractions that result in serious injuries or fatalities deserve greater discipline than minor infractions. Finally, repeated infractions should result in progressively greater discipline.

  6. Evaluation of the accountability system. All systems and subsystems require a thorough examination of internal processes to make sure the system is functioning properly. Safety staff should conduct ongoing analysis and evaluation of all processes within the safety accountability system. When improvement is necessary, consider incorporating W. Edwards Deming's classic PDSA cycle: (1) PLAN - carefully design (2) DO - implement the change. Test it on a small scale, (3) STUDY - analyze the results, and (4) ACT - adopt, abandon, or revise the change.

What's wrong with this picture?

Given the criteria for effective accountability above, read the following scenario to determine if discipline is appropriate.

Gloria, the shipping supervisor at XYZ Distributors, immediately suspended Joe, a forklift driver, for two days without pay for driving a forklift into a 55-gallon drum of agent-x that resulted in an uncontrolled release of hazardous chemical. Gloria was under a lot of pressure from her manager to get three late shipments of product out the door before the end of the work shift. As a result of the incident, the company's emergency response team had to activated to contain the spill and an outside contractor hired to clean the spill. The follow-up incident analysis determined that the brakes on the lift truck were defective. No preventive maintenance inspection on the forklift had been conducted for five months. Neither the supervisor nor driver from the previous shift had reported the condition at shift changeover. Joe notified Gloria at the beginning of the shift that he believed the brakes might be weak. Gloria, who was "buried in paperwork," responded with, "just be careful and use common sense."

If you think Gloria was justified in disciplining Joe, please read on very carefully: you need to. Although there is a limited amount of information in this scenario we can, nevertheless, establish that Gloria was not justified in disciplining Joe. Analysis of this scenario will uncover system failures. Let's take a look at a few of the possible failures within the accountability system that supports this position:

  1. Element One Failure. Gloria responded to Joe's hazard report by merely telling him to be careful. As an agent of the employer, She actually "rewrote" and reversed a very important safety policy prohibiting the use of defective equipment. Thus, operating a forklift with defective brakes was now allowed. Joe was required to use a forklift with defective brakes. He did not have the option of using another forklift or waiting until the defective forklift was repaired prior to resuming work. Improvement: Education on OSHA employer responsibilities.
  2. Element Two Failure. Lack of physical resources. Gloria's decision to allowed Joe to continue use of a defective forklift. Improvement: Develop and implement preventive maintenance policy and inspection procedures.
  3. Element Two Failure. Lack of psychosocial support. Unreasonable workload. Gloria perceived that her job security depended on getting the job done quickly, not safely. She perceived workload requirements as too great given her limited resources. Improvement: Develop and implement policy related to scheduled and unscheduled shipping standards.
  4. Element Two Failure. Lack of psychosocial support. Lack of adequate education and training. Gloria may have not received adequate education and training on the company's safety accountability system and disciplinary procedures. Improvement: Design and conduct management education and training on concepts of accountability policies and procedures.
  5. Element Three Failure. Failure to detect and correct. The prior shift supervisor and employee did not detect or correct the defective forklift prior to the incident. Improvement: Design and conduct management training on safety oversight and reporting responsibilities.
  6. Element Four Failure. Improper timing. Gloria administered discipline too soon -- before the facts uncovered in the follow-up incident analysis were completed. Improvement: Design and conduct management training on disciplinary procedures.
  7. Element Five Failure. Inappropriate motivation. Gloria disciplined because she was upset that the shipping schedule was disrupted, not that Joe might have been injured. This was, of course, a natural emotional reaction in this situation because she was afraid of losing her job. Her anxiety - a form of distress in the workplace - resulted in an immediate over-reaction to incident. Improvement: Design and implement policies that support working safe, not working fast.
  8. Element Five Failure. Discipline based on subjective data. Gloria did not have the facts before disciplining. Discipline was the result of an emotional reaction and based on assumptions. In this case, had she waited, she would have realized that discipline was not justified because some rather obvious safety management system weaknesses existed. Why did she react prior to having the facts? Improvement: Design and conduct management and employee training on safety accountability criteria.

Given more background information and analysis, other important system failures would also be discovered throughout various levels of staff and line management. These and other failures support the position that employee discipline is not justified in this scenario. Additionally, it's important to note that safety staff would help top-level staff and line managers design and implement the improvements to the safety management system.

Remember the 5-R principle:

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

Designing and implementing an effective safety accountability system has the potential to improve safety compliance behaviors to record highs within an organization. In the next article, I'll discuss recognition system processes safety staff can promote to help staff an line managers improve discretionary employee safety behaviors and performance so that discipline is rarely required.

Source: OSHAcademy

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Copyright ©2000-2019 Geigle Safety Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Federal copyright prohibits unauthorized reproduction by any means without permission. Disclaimer: This material is for training purposes only to inform the reader of occupational safety and health best practices and general compliance requirement and is not a substitute for provisions of the OSH Act of 1970 or any governmental regulatory agency. CertiSafety is a division of Geigle Safety Group, Inc., and is not connected or affiliated with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).