Course 700 - Introduction to Safety Management

Safety guides and audits to make your job as a safety professional easier

Element 2: Accountability

Does this picture show an unsafe practice? Yes!
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Accountability ranks right at the top with management commitment as a critical element in a company's safety and health management system. Accountability is one of the answers to the question, "why do we behave the way we do in the workplace?" So, it's important that we understand what it is and how it should work as part of the safety management system.

Management may impose all kinds of safety policies, programs, written plans, directives, rules, and training on the workforce, but as you'll soon learn, none of that effort will matter unless the appropriate application of effective consequences within a culture of accountability exists: only then will desired behaviors be sustained. After all, employees must believe they are going to be held accountable for the decisions they make and the actions they take, or you can be sure that any safety management effort is ultimately doomed to failure.

What is Accountability?

Accountability and responsibility are not the same.
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You hear the terms "responsibility" and "accountability" a lot when dealing with safety and health, and sometimes people speak as though the two terms have the same meaning. But, as used in OSHA standards and throughout our courses, these two terms have very different meanings. Let's find out why.

Go get your dictionary. You'll find responsibility and accountability defined something like:

  • Responsible - expected or obliged to account for or answer to; involving obligation or duties. Responsibility - able to account for or answer to.

  • Accountable - responsible; liable; legally bound or subject to giving an account (or explanation), answerable. Accountability - able to give account or answer to.

If you examine only these two definitions, it's understandable why you might conclude that they have virtually the same meaning. However, the notion of being "liable or legally bound" gives accountability an added meaning. When applying these two concepts to management in the workplace, they take on very important and distinct differences in meaning and application.

  • Responsibility may be thought of as simply the "obligation to fulfill a duty or task." To be responsible, you need only be assigned one or more duties.

  • Accountability, on the other hand, may be thought of as establishing the "obligation to fulfill a task to a required level of performance 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.

What is the difference between accountability and responsibility? Read more from our partner HSE Press! Click here.

The Six Elements of an Effective Accountability System

Accountability is one of the most important elements within the safety management system. The safety manager and safety committee may use the guidelines in the six elements of an accountability system to help design, develop, and deploy an effective accountability system. With that in mind, let's take a look at each of the six elements.

Clearly state standards of performance
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Element 1: Formal Standards of Performance

OSHA has developed rules in occupational safety and health which serve as standards of performance for employers. Similarly, employers are required to establish their own company programs, plans, policies, processes, procedures, work practices, job descriptions and rules to clearly convey these safety standards of performance to employees.

It is important that safety policies and disciplinary procedures be clearly stated in writing and made available to everyone. In fact, it is necessary to educate all employees on these policies and procedures. Make sure they certify that they have read, understood, and will comply with those safety policies and procedures. Do this when they are hired, and annually thereafter.

If standards of acceptable behavior and performance are not established and clearly communicated to employees, an effective accountability system is impossible. Management may not be justified in administering discipline without clearly written and communicated standards.

Element 2: Adequate Resources and Psychosocial Support

Before employers are justified in administering appropriate consequences, they should first provide their employees with the means and methods to achieve the standards of performance that have been established. Employers should provide a safe and healthful physical workplace and supportive psychosocial workplace environment.

We can't work safe while overly stressed!
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  • Physical resources: Helps to ensure safe and healthful conditions and exposures. Examples include safe tools, equipment, machinery, materials, workstations, facilities, and environment. State and Federal OSHA agencies emphasize this category.

  • Psychosocial support: The prevention of psychosocial stress is closely linked to the promotion of a healthy work environment. Stress normally refers to feelings of strain, tenseness, nervousness and reduced feelings of control. Stress takes our mind off of the work we're doing and increases the chance of being injured or ill.

  • Examples of psychosocial factors that increase stress include job dissatisfaction, monotonous work, pressure to work fast, limited job control, and lack of positive consequences.

    Examples of ways to support the psychosocial environment that reduce stress include effective safety education and training, reasonable work schedules and production quotas, human resource programs, safe work procedures, competent management, and tough-caring leadership.

Element 3: A System of Performance Measurement

Develop a way to measure performance.
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Once again, when applied to safety behavior and performance, being held accountable demands more than simply being answerable. In an effective accountability system the quality or level of safety performance is measured regularly and often. Measurement processes include informal/formal observations. Real measurement means more than merely observing behaviors. It also includes quantifying observations...adding up the numbers. Those numbers form the statistics that you can use to improve the safety management system.

Examples of measured safety behaviors and performance at various levels include:

Top/mid-level managers: Unfortunately, measurement at this level typically includes lagging indicators or results statistics over which top managers actually have little direct control. These measures include:

  • Accident rates.
  • Experience modification rate (MOD Rate).
  • Workers' compensation costs.

This situation may cause top managers to put pressure on supervisors to hold down the number of accidents in their departments. Consequently, the result may be ineffective measurement at all levels. Appropriate leading indicator behaviors and activities to measure at top/mid- level management include:

  • Involvement in safety management system formulation and implementation;
  • Developing effective safety policies, programs, procedures;
  • Arranging management/supervisor safety training;
  • Providing physical resources and psychosocial support;
  • Involvement in safety education/training;
  • Supporting involvement in the safety committee.

Supervisors: Supervisors may not be able to completely control the results (such as the accident rate) of their work area. They do, however, have the ability to control their safety management and leadership activities. Therefore, measurement at this level should primarily include personal safety behaviors and activities such as:

  • Making sure workers have safe materials, tools, equipment, machinery, etc.
  • Ensuring a healthful psychosocial environment
  • Following company safety rules
  • Conducting safety inspections
  • Enforcing safety rules
  • Training safe work procedures
  • Recognizing employees for safety
  • Conducting safety meetings

Employees: Measurement of employees should include appropriate behaviors such as:

  • Complying with company safety rules
  • Reporting injuries immediately
  • Reporting hazards
  • Making suggestions
  • Involvement in safety activities

After all is said and done, if the behaviors and activities above are expected and recognized, the results that we all worry about will take care of themselves. Improve the process and watch the outcome follow! Is this all "pie in the sky"? It doesn't have to be.

Accountability and Control

No control, No discipline
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A basic rule for developing accountability criteria for measurement is that a person should be held accountable for a responsibility only if that person has control, authority, and ability to fulfill that responsibility.

If managers and employees are being measured and held accountable for results over which they have no control, they will attempt to somehow gain control over the results. The attempt to establish control may include inappropriate strategies.

For example, a supervisor who's measured only on department accident rates may threaten to fire anyone who completes an OSHA 301, Incident Report. Not only is that behavior counterproductive for the company, it is illegal!

OSHA assumes the employer ultimately controls all of the many operational variables such as raw materials, equipment, machinery, work schedules, personnel, and policies that make up the day-to-day work environment. Therefore, employer performance in providing resources and implementing policies, etc., should be measured.

On the other hand, employees may have very little control over operations in the workplace. They do, however, have control over their own behavior. Employees have the ability to make a choice:

  • to work safe, or
  • to take chances

In the workplace, managers should measure supervisor activities and behaviors, and it's important that supervisors measure their employees' safety behaviors. Employees can choose to comply with safety rules, and they may choose to report injuries and hazards in the workplace. Consequently, we need to measure these personal behaviors.

OSHA doesn't merely observe, they inspect, investigate, and issue citations that may include monetary penalties: Now that's measurement with consequences, isn't it?

Be careful, or you'll suffer the natural consequences!
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Element 4: Application of Effective Consequences

What is a consequence?

A "consequence" is anything that happens as a result of something that happens. Another way to express it is to think of cause and effect: the initial behavior is the "cause" and the consequence is the "effect" of the cause. For every cause, there is an effect.

In each example below, the initial behavior or action is the cause: the reaction is the effect or consequence. Let's look at some examples:

  • If you hit your thumb with a hammer (cause), the natural consequence is pain, injury, embarrassment, etc. (effect)
  • If you think safety is not important, you take unsafe shortcuts that can get you injured.
  • If a supervisor yells at you, you might yell back, apologize, go home, or even quit.

Is there any escape from consequences?

Not in the workplace. It's important to understand there is no such thing as "no consequence" for an action. You cannot NOT have a consequence. For instance, if a supervisor thanks a worker for making a safety suggestion, the supervisor's recognition is a consequence (positive). If the supervisor ignores the worker who made the safety suggestion, the "act" of ignoring is also a consequence (negative).

Every cause has an effect. Every action has a consequence.

Effective consequences increase desired behaviors or decrease undesired behaviors. If employee safety performance meets or exceeds the standards set by the employer, some sort of recognition should follow. On the other hand, if the employee makes an informed choice not to comply with the company's safety rules, some sort of appropriate corrective action should follow.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

There are various strategies for administering positive and negative consequences. Careful planning is critical to ensure consequences are effective. So, let's first take a look at positive and negative reinforcement, and why positive reinforcement is best in producing a world-class safety culture.

A sincere handshake can go a long way!
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Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is the use of consequence strategies that attempt to increase the frequency of desired behaviors through positive recognition and/or reward. Workers think that if they do something well, they will get recognized. Consequences for safe behaviors that meet or exceed expectations usually include some form of positive recognition and/or reward. Important criteria to remember about positive reinforcement include:

  • It will increase desired behavior.
  • The desired behaviors may actually be safe or unsafe.
  • Workers perform to receive a positive consequence.
  • Workers may perform far beyond minimum standards - discretionary effort.

  • If the desired behavior is to work safe, no matter what - it's a success-based strategy.

  • If the desired behavior is to work fast, not necessarily safe - it's a failure-based strategy.

  • This strategy is more effective if the goal is to achieve a world-class safety culture.

It's important to know that "desired" behaviors may not always be safe behaviors. Unfortunately, this may be true in safety cultures where it's more important to work fast than safe. Working fast, not safe is top priority. This is especially true when the employer is under pressure to finish a project on time. Here are some examples that show how perceived positive reinforcement can increase both safe and unsafe behaviors:

  • If you comply with safety rules, the supervisor thanks you.
  • If you take safety shortcuts to get work done ahead of schedule, your supervisor gives you time off.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is the use of consequence strategies that attempt to increase the frequency of desired behaviors by withholding perceived negative consequences. Workers think that if they do something the employer wants, they will avoid negative consequences. If safety is what the employer wants, these strategies will be less effective because workers are generally only trying to do what is necessary just to "stay out of trouble". Important criteria of negative reinforcement include:

  • Workers perform only to avoid the perceived negative consequence - nothing else.
  • The desired behavior may actually be safe or unsafe.
  • The intent is to increase desired behaviors by withholding an unwanted consequence.
  • Workers perform to minimum standard but not beyond: just enough to stay out of trouble.
  • The focus is on compliance, not excellence. - it's a fear-based strategy.
  • This strategy is less effective if the goal is to achieve a world-class safety culture.

Once again, the outcome is dependent on the behaviors that the employer actually wants. Hopefully, the employer prioritizes safety, but that's not always the case. Here are some examples that show how perceived negative reinforcement can increase both safe and unsafe behaviors:

  • If you comply with safety rules, the supervisor says you won't be reprimanded.
  • If you take safety shortcuts to get work done ahead of schedule, your supervisor does not get upset.

Positive and Negative Punishment

One winner - many losers! Positive reinforcement for one - negative punishment for many.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment occurs when a worker's safety behavior or performance results in a perceived negative consequence that serves to decrease the probability of that behavior in the future.

For instance, a supervisor might yell at a worker who is violating safety rules. If the worker stops violating safety, the supervisor ceases yelling. The supervisor's yelling serves as a positive punishment because the supervisor adds an unpleasant response in the form of yelling.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment occurs when a worker's behavior or performance results in the removal a perceived positive consequence. Removal of the consequence decreases the probability of that behavior in the future. For instance, the supervisor withholds positive recognition if workers do not achieve certain standards of behavior or performance.

Why Recognition Programs Fail

Both positive reinforcement and negative punishment occur in safety recognition programs that reward one employee for being first, best, or most improved. At the same time the one winner receives positive reinforcement, everyone else receives negative punishment because they are, in fact, losers. Everyone else may have performed quite well, but since they were not the best, positive recognition is withheld. The result is one winner and many losers.

Recognition programs that reward only the best performer can actually demotivate most workers. This form of negative punishment is one of the primarily reasons safety recognition programs do not work. Recognition programs should be criterion-based that recognize everyone who meet the criteria for recognition. The goal is to have many winners who all meet or exceed management expectations.


Never ignore good performance!
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Ignoring, intended or unintended, is actually a common form of negative punishment. You might think ignoring employee behaviors is actually withholding a consequence. No such luck. Every response, including ignoring, is a consequence. In fact, ignoring desired behaviors in the workplace is usually the least effective consequence because it leads to extinction of those behaviors. Think about it. Have you ever been ignored when you thought you should have been recognized? I bet you were upset. And it didn't matter why you were ignored either: you didn't like it. So, let's take a look at some of the characteristics of extinction:

  • It is the withdrawal of recognition;
  • The worker is ignored and no matter what, desired behavior becomes less frequent. For instance:

    • If workers breaks safety rules and are ignored, they may perceive it as a positive consequence and will less likely behave safely in the future.

    • If workers complies with safety rules and is ignored, they may perceive it as a negative consequence and will more likely break safety rules in the future.

  • Workers eventually perform without an expectation of recognition.
  • No relationship with management exists.
  • It is the most common form of consequence in the workplace - It's epidemic in organizations.
  • Examples of the thoughts and beliefs produced when people are ignored include:

    • "It doesn't matter how hard I work around here."
    • "Apathy is rampant, but who cares."

Element 5: Appropriate Application of Consequences

Without the expectation of consequences, accountability has no credibility and will not be effective. In other words, no consequences - no accountability. Consequences need to be appropriate as well as 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.

Justified Consequences

Negative consequences are justified when the person administering discipline has fulfilled their own accountabilities first. Positive consequences are justified any time employees meet or exceed expectations. Here's an important principle (I call it the 5-R principle) : The more Regularly you Recognize and Reward, the more Rarely you'll have to Reprimand.

"Five Stars" Leadership is the Key

It's critical to understand that before administering progressive discipline, managers and supervisors exercise real leadership when they first ask five important questins to how well they have fulfilled their own obligations to employees. Doing this is important to make sure they are actually justified in administering corrective actions. The negative impact on the company if employees are discipline inappropriately can be dramatic over time.

The good news is that determining if discipline is appropriate doesn't have to be difficult. When conducting a self-evaluation, managers and supervisors can use the "STARS" acronym to the right to help them remember their five basic safety obligations to employees. Let's take a look at each of the five obligations:

A good way to remember your obligations.
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  1. Supervision. By definition, adequate supervision means "detecting and correcting hazards or unsafe behavior before they cause an injury or illness." If supervisors are stuck in the office all day it's not possible to oversee the work employees are doing. Lack of supervision is a major reason disciplining employees after an accident is usually inappropriate. Managers and supervisors should ask, "Did I catch them violating safety rules before they got hurt?"
  2. Training. Employees must be provided with the required knowledge and gain the skills to comply with safety requirements. Employees, then, have the necessary knowledge and skills to understand the natural and system consequences of noncompliance. Managers and supervisors should ask, "Have I provided (or has the employee received) quality safety training?"
  3. Accountability. Do employees believe they will be disciplined if they're caught violating safety rules? Or, do they know that all you will do is shake your finger and threaten them without following through. If supervisors allow employees to violate safety rules, all justification for discipline disappears. Managers and supervisors should ask, "Have I applied safety accountability fairly and consistently in the past?"
  4. Resources. Do employees have the physical resources and psychosocial support to comply with safety requirements? Supervisors need to provide adequate tools, equipment, materials that make it possible for employees to work safely.
  5. Support. Supervisors should also manage workloads, schedules, employee relations so that the workplace is as stress-free as possible. When the employee believes working fast is more important than working safe, supervisors are failing in this area. Managers and supervisors should ask, "Have I provided the employee with a safe and healthful workplace?"

If managers and supervisors can honestly answer "YES" to each of the above five questions, it may be appropriate to administer discipline because the five basic leadership obligations have been fulfilled. However, if they cannot honestly answer "yes" to each question, then an apology would be in order, and a promise to make personal and system improvements (provider better training, resources, expectations of enforcement, supervision and leadership).

Consequences (Continued)

How Severity and Responsibility Affect Consequences

Now this could be severe!
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  • Severity. Consequences should increase with the severity of the potential injury or illness that might result from the behavior. If an employee is performing an unsafe work practice that could result in a fatal injury to himself or another employee, that certainly warrants a severe consequence. On the other hand, an employee who performs a behavior that violates a safety rule, yet will not result in an injury or illness, a less severe consequence is more appropriate.
  • Responsibility. 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 ear protection, a safety rule has been violated and discipline may be in order. However, if a supervisor or manager neglects to wear the ear protection, we're not just talking about violating a safety rule. That safety rule has, in effect, been legally transformed from a mandatory requirement into a discretionary guideline. Consequently, as a guideline, it is not legally auditable or enforceable.

In the examples above, a more severe level of discipline would be in order for the supervisor because the supervisor, in effect, gives permission for all employees to violate the safety rules. Consequently, the negative impact on the safety of employees has the potential to be much greater when the supervisor violates a safety rule.

On the other hand, if a supervisor or manager does something positive, the net impact will likely be greater than that of one of his or her employees. Consequently, more significant positive consequences would certainly be appropriate.

Consistent Application of Consequences

  • Consequences are applied consistently at all levels of the organization.

To build a high level of trust between management and labor, accountability must be applied consistently at all levels of the organization: up and down, and across functions. Every supervisor and manager must be held accountable in the same fair manner consistent with employees. If labor perceives the accountability system as applying only to them, they will naturally consider it unfair: the primary failure mode for accountability systems.

Element 6: Continuous Evaluation of the Accountability System

Continually evaluate to continually improve.
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Although as a supervisor you may not be responsible for formally evaluating the accountability system 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 levels of activity:

  • Identification: Inspect the accountability system policies, plans, procedures, processes to identify what exists.
  • Analysis: Dissect and thoroughly study each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, process to understand what they look like. The devil is in the detail.
  • Evaluation: Compare and contrast each accountability system policy, plan, procedure, process against benchmarks and best practices to judge their effectiveness.

Evaluating for Accountability

OSHA looks primarily for two program elements when evaluating an employer for accountability: Policy and consequences. OSHA does not mandate or require specific recognition/disciplinary procedures: That's the responsibility of the employer. But, an effective accountability policy that is written and clearly communicated should be in place. Make sure your company has a written policy that addresses accountability including the three key components.

  • specific performance expectations
  • who is Accountable - both management and employee
  • appropriate Consequences such as progressive discipline

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

Well, that was a lot of information. You learned that the components of responsibility and accountability are different. Accountability has three basic components: established standards, methods of measurement, and consequences. You also learned that supervisors have accountabilities associated with controlling the workplace, and employees have accountabilities related to personal behavior. Now it's time to take the module quiz.


Regardless of your operations and organization, accountability is what makes your safety system work. Dan Peterson tells how holding people accountable — top to bottom — eliminates accidents and injuries more than any other single approach. Learn more about Caterpillar's safety culture products.


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. According to the text, being held "accountable" may be defined as being able to give the right answers to any questions that might be asked.

2. One of the important responsibilities of a supervisor or manager is to make sure safety is considered when purchasing materials, equipment, and tools for employees.

3. According to the text, which of the following is a question a manager should ask before considering discipline?

4. You are a supervisor and you have just noticed an employee driving a forklift at a dangerous speed in the warehouse. Today is his first day at work. When you are determining if discipline is appropriate, which question below will most likely be answered "No"?

5. According to the text, to build a high level of trust between management and labor, accountability must be:

Have a great day!

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