You hear a lot about accountability as a safety professional, but it’s important we understand the close coordination between safety staff, line supervisors, and the human resources department to make sure holding employees accountable for safety is fair, just, and consistently applied.
Whether an organization knows it or not, they always have an accountability system in operation. The question is, what does it look like? It’s important the safety accountability system be as effective as possible, or it is doomed to failure, and may actually hurt, not help, meet the mission goals of the company.
An safety accountability system is one of the very important subsystems within the overall safety management system. These six important elements should be present to make sure you have an effective safety accountability system.
- Formal standards of performance: An effective safety accountability system requires written safety plans, policies, programs, processes, procedures that clarify management and employee responsibilities, and standards of safety performance.
- Resources and psychosocial support: If managers and supervisors are going to hold employees accountable to achieve a given standard of safety performance, they can’t “pass the buck.” They take on the obligation to provide the physical resources (tools, equipment, materials, workstations, facilities) and psychosocial support (education, training, scheduling, culture) that make it possible for employees to achieve those standards.
- Performance measurement: 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.
- Effective consequences: To be effective, consequences should be soon, certain, significant, and sincere. When employees perform unsafe behaviors, discipline should occur soon, but only 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 employees’ degree of compliance after discipline has been administered.
- Appropriate application of consequences: Discipline is considered only after management has determined supervisors and managers at all levels have first fulfilled their obligations to employees. If management has, indeed, fulfilled its legal obligations, discipline may be appropriate. Discipline should be based on objective facts, not subjective momentary feelings. It should be consistently administered throughout the entire organization. Discipline should never be administered until a thorough root cause analysis has been conducted. If there has been an accident, discipline is never appropriate until the investigation is over, and a competent manager has determined the safety management system did not fail the employee. Then, only after coordination with the human resources department, the appropriate level of discipline should be administered.
- Accountability system evaluation: All systems and subsystems require a thorough examination of internal processes to make sure the system is functioning properly. Safety professionals 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.
By incorporating these six important elements into your safety accountability system, you can be sure it will be effectively administered and maintained. For more information on this topic be sure to review the appropriate modules in OSHAcademy Courses 700 Introduction to Safety Management and 712 Safety Supervision and Leadership. Note: We will be publishing a new course 731, Safety Accountability Systems, soon. This new course will cover each of the six elements in much more detail. Look for it.