Responsibility and Accountability: What’s the Difference?

You hear a lot about responsibility and accountability in safety and health, and sometimes people speak as though the two terms have the same meaning. But, as used in OSHA standards and generally in safety and health management, these two terms have very different meanings. Let’s find out why.

If you check out these two terms in a dictionary, you’ll discover responsibility and accountability are defined something like:

  • Responsible: (adjective) answerable or accountable; expected or obliged to account for or answer to; involving obligation or duties; reliable; dependable

Example: “The safety manager is responsible to the owner for the effectiveness of the safety program.”

  • Accountable: (adjective) subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable; liable; legally bound or subject to giving an account (or explanation)

Example: “The employer is held accountable by OSHA standards for safety in the workplace.”

It’s no wonder we hear these two terms being used interchangeably because, on the surface, it looks like these two terms are synonyms having virtually the same meaning.

However, there is an important distinction. If we analyze the two terms more closely, we see  the notion of being “liable or legally bound” is listed only in the definition for accountable. It’s important to understand this distinction when developing an effective safety accountability program.

When applying these two concepts in an effective safety management system, responsibility and accountability take on very important and distinct differences in meaning and application.

  • An assigned “obligation and authority to fulfill a duty:” To be responsible, you need only be assigned one or more duties. When the assignment is made, you may or may not actually be held accountable.  That is the potential problem.

Example: “The owner of the company has assigned responsibility for the safety program to the safety manager.”

  • An established “obligation to fulfill a duty or else:” When you are held accountable, your performance is measured against some specific criteria or standard and consequences are applied appropriate to the level or quality of performance. Performance and consequences are linked.

Example: “The employer has legal accountability for safety in the workplace.”

Bottom line: When you are assigned responsibility, you have authority and an obligation to perform, however the performance is not necessarily measured. But when you are held accountable, your performance is measured against standards or goals and it results in consequences.