Personal Responsibility Within a Behavioral Approach

We have received much positive feedback on our book Safe by Accident and we are delighted that so many people find it helpful.  There is one issue that some people are struggling with so we want to take this opportunity to clarify.  Some readers are having trouble reconciling our discussion of the influence of organizational/management systems on at-risk behavior and the concept of personal responsibility for safety.  The question is: if at-risk behavior is found to be influenced by management-controlled organizational systems, does that let the frontline performer off the hook? To some extent this is a philosophical issue.  The notion of personal responsibility is embedded in our culture.  It is present in our judicial, political and social systems and has served us well in many respects.  In a work setting, telling employees that they are “responsible for their personal safety” at work is helpful as a broad antecedent.  It sets the expectation that each person must do what they can to protect themselves and others.  The question is what specifically are they responsible for?  Telling miners they are responsible for their own safety and then sending them into a mine that is poorly ventilated and structurally unsound is absurd. 

They cannot be responsible for their own safety under those conditions because they do not control them.  We think everyone will agree with this extreme example.  The difficulty comes with less extreme examples.  Workers who are trained in procedures but don’t follow them consistently, for example.  Our position is that there is shared responsibility in most cases.  Our concern with the notion of “personal responsibility” is that it sounds like an easy solution to a very complex problem.  We are sure that some of you have told employees in your organization that they are responsible for their personal safety.  We assume since you are reading this, that hasn’t solved all your safety problems.  Antecedents rarely do. So where does personal responsibility fit in? Let’s back up. The goal in safety is to prevent injury and illness.  If we say that people are responsible for their own safety, then it follows that if they are not safe, they are to blame. Our point is that blaming people for things that are, at least to some extent, outside of their control does not accomplish the goal.  If it did more organizations would be perfectly safe by now.  But let us be very clear: we are not suggesting that accountability (a synonym of responsibility) is bad.  Accountability is essential in safety.  However, it is critical that organizations first determine WHO should be accountable for WHAT.  The word, accountability, is often code for whom to punish. 

The issue is not who should be punished but what actions will correct the situation so that it will not recur.  Although punishment is appropriate under certain circumstances, we see too often that organizations punish only the person at the point of the accident without fully understanding the systemic issues that have contributed. This is not only unjust, but it fails to rectify the situation. Systems are designed and maintained by people.   Therefore, there should be accountability for those who control the systems to change the systems if they are faulty.  Once the systems are changed then everyone who works in those systems should be held accountable (positively reinforced for engaging in safe behaviors and corrected when they are not).  This is not about absolving personal responsibility--quite the opposite.  It is about establishing accountability, at all levels, that will lead to true improvement.  Frontline performers need to be held accountable for those things under their control.  They should be responsible for reporting hazards, providing feedback to keep peers safe, participating in safety meetings, talking to management when systems make working safely more difficult, offering solutions, and working to improve their own safe behaviors.  Frontline performers will be more successful in “taking personal responsibility for their safety” if they work in partnership with management and those who control the organizational systems within which they work.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.