Accountability up, or responsibility down?

file0001652481771A few years ago, I learnt of a woman who was slightly injured at work. She told her supervisor, showed the injury, and went to see the doctor that same afternoon. While in the waiting room, she got a call from school. Her son had fallen ill and been sent home. After her appointment and having her gash cleaned and glued by a nurse, she rushed home to take care of her boy. She later informed her supervisor.

News of the injury made its way to the company’s safety manager. He was horrified. Not necessarily because of the injury or the employee’s fate, but because he had been on a “winning streak.” Next to the entrance of the plant, a sign announced that the company had been without injury for 297 days. 300 had been within reach! The number would have looked so good. It would have made him look so good.

The day after the incident, the safety manager went to see the supervisor before committing, with lead in his shoes, to change the sign to 0. Zero days since the last injury. Then he learnt that the employee had gone home after the incident and doctor’s visit. It was a gift from heaven. He called the HR manager and together they resolved to generously give the woman the previous afternoon off. It was no longer a Loss-Time Injury (LTI). The woman had simply gone home to take care of her child. He also called the clinic. Because no suturing was done and no doctor needed to touch the woman, this was not a medical treatment in the strict definition held by the company. So no Medical-Treatment Injury (MTI) either. The safety manager could breathe again.

A few days later, the sign next to the entrance proudly showed 300.

A few days after that, the safety manager wanted to launch a campaign to win employees’ “hearts and minds” for safety. After all, people were hurting themselves while at work. Were they distracted, not watching out carefully enough? He needed to make sure that their attention was focused on not getting hurt. They needed to be more engaged.

On the workfloor, the attempted campaign met with derision. They needed to be more engaged? The safety manager was almost never seen there, nor the plant manager. How could they now presume to win hearts and minds for safety if, for them, safety was a matter of massaging numbers to secure their career prospects? Their hearts or minds were demonstrably not into safety—only their pocketbooks. Safety to them was public relations (PR). It was about carefully managing the image they projected to their insurers and the surrounding community, to the regulator, to corporate, to their customers and clients and contractors, to headquarters.

If only this safety manager were unique. He wasn’t, and isn’t. Today, he is joined by vast numbers of safety managers, directors and officers in a similar predicament: their performance is measured by low counts on negatives. They are held accountable for not having things happen. Not surprisingly, the creativity and imagination for keeping bad numbers down is virtually boundless. Paying managers or directors bonuses for safety performance fires up that imagination even more. Almost everybody in the industry has stories of how putative LTI’s and MTI’s didn’t quite make it into the stats. It could amount to fraud on a massive scale—if not legally then at least ethically. Or perhaps it is just really smart PR management.

The problem is, we are not in the business of PR. We are in the business of safety. But safety has increasingly become an accountability up, rather than a responsibility down. Safety has become a bureaucratic accountability. How can a safety manager or director show that his business is safe? By sitting down in front of his computer, pulling out excel files and showing numbers. He knows he has a good safety culture if the tabulations on his computer tell him so. 297 days!

And then one of his employees gets hurt.

How have we ended up there? I used to think that people are attracted to the safety profession because they actually care. They care for other people. They are passionate about keeping others safe. They feel that safety is an ethical obligation they owe to those who do the company’s dirty and dangerous work. Safety, to them, is a responsibility down, not an accountability up. But then they join a company and find out that their KPI’s are driven not by how much time they spend with the workforce, or how much they show care and concern and come up with innovative ideas about safety. Their KPI’s, and thus their job security, pay and promotion chances, are imprisoned in what the excel sheet shows to those above them.

How do we change this? Here are a few ideas:

  • Assess safety by more than just the absence of negatives. We need to develop standards that count positives. How much time in a job start or toolbox meeting is spent in conversation or discussion rather than in supervisor monologue? That is countable.
  • Rank contractors not on their LTI’s or MTI’s but on whether they have a just culture that allows their bosses to hear bad news without fear of being punished.
  • Abolish bonuses and promotion for safety performance based on low counts of negatives.
  • Forbid, as per organizational policy, anybody to sign off on a procedure or work method statement who does not, or will not, do that work him- or herself.
  • Institute computer black-out and meeting-free times (like 2 hours a day), so site and safety managers become mobile and learn how work actually gets done. There is no substitute for physical presence and conversations between people. Consider making workfloor presence a KPI for such managers.

Fortunately, there are still many who recognize that safety is a responsibility down. I recently joined a foreman on his rounds around a plant. As we ducked piping, cranes, vehicles, vessels and machinery, he greeted and cajoled everyone. There was not a single employee or contractor whose name or ideosyncracy he didn’t know. He had an encyclopeadic memory of minor family matters these guys had told him about, technical questions they’d asked him. He stood, took his time, observed. He helped, corrected and reminded, handing out gloves and ear protection to have his guys comply with new requirements. What mattered were his soft skills, his people skills. At the end of the day, instead of finally hiding in the airconditioned whiteness of his cubicle and sitting down at his computer to fill in an excel sheet, he went out in the heat to sweep up loose gravel, a hazard his guys had complained about for weeks. Computer-based requests to fix the problem had of course got lost in some bureaucratic black hole: as far as the workfloor knew, the company didn’t care. But he did.

Now I am happy to accept that the foreman was engaged in his own kind of PR. He wanted to be seen to care. He knew that that was the only way to win the hearts and minds of his guys. But he didn’t just project an image of caring. He was caring. As we parted at the gate, he looked satisfied at what had been accomplished during that day, and frustrated at everything still to be done. He also looked completely knackered. I wondered where he’d find the energy to return to the safety battle the next day. Perhaps that is being a true OHS Professional. Doing what you care for most, even on days you don’t feel like it.

This article appeared originally in OHS Professional
Dekker, S. W. A. (2013). Safety: Accountability up or responsibility down? OHS Professional, March, pp. 20-21.


  1. dean Reply

    Hello Sidney,

    There is little doubt – these practices are now well embedded across many industries, big and small – yet what truly confounds me, given the period of time the safety community have been discussing the undesirable outcomes of these LTi shambolic measures, is the continued tolerance/references to AS 1885.1, which in it’s present form only serves to legitimize the very practices you described. The AS1885.1 standard is now at risk of being older than some of the safety practitioners who use it – Worse still the standard – is largely silent on what the parameters /conditions of an LTi – allowing considerable latitude in the LTi’s interpretation and resultant classification.
    SO, if we are ever any chance of arresting the continued LTi deceptions in terms of injury severity recording, a complete revision to the standard – is long, long overdue. At the end of the day, managerial prerogative will always prevail, but – if we get the classification and recording standards criteria right – some of that prerogative will be significantly tempered into actually examining the true problems of how people are being hurt in the first place and facilitate resourcing the preventative measures required – rather than status quo, incentivizing industry to distorting their injury severity classifications.

    PS thanks to Mark Collins for sharing the site among QUT Post Grad students also.

  2. Hans Houtman Reply

    Another idea: let’s not pay bonuses to the safety manager and the CEO for a safe operation, but to those who really do the work and make it safe. Wonder what the safety manager and the CEO might think of this.

  3. Andrew Townsend Reply

    Sidney – It is a very old study (It was part of my Master’s dissertation over a decade ago). I identified that construction companies that had an ethos of care had significantly lower injury rates than those who had a policy or duty of care. Companies in which the managers did ‘management by walking about’ and praised their workforces also had significantly lower injury rates. They also made greater profits. It aint rocket science but it seems to be lost on most H&S professionals.


  4. Suzanne Reply

    This is a nice story that makes the point that leadership engaged in safety makes a difference. What I find interesting is that the story’s hero is a Foreman, not a Safety professional. I recently had the opportunity to report results to our construction head office. Since we have no reportable work injuries, we count hazards instead (have to find something negative to count don’t we?).

    The response to my catalog of hazards identified from my inspections was met with the directive to enforce harder and make local management enforce the rules and regulations. We all know we need some rules – we can’t harlem shake all day long, but what is really going on here ? Because we don’t have injuries and this is industrial construction – a risky industry.

    After reading this, I attribute safety here due to:
    – major contractors spending time discussing safety at every toolbox. Workers feel free to raise safety concerns or issues – usually process related sometimes personal related – and these issues are resolved by the contractor management.
    – major contractors do not punish their workers for reporting near-hits. We just had one reported, and the contractor was supportive of their worker involved.
    – safe work methods and procedures are adapted to the stage of the construction project. We only initiate safe work methods when the hazard is present.
    – High work floor presence. Physical presence and conversations between supervisors and workers, often work related but definitely at appropriate times personal.

    So as I go back to counting and cataloging hazards, I know “real” safety is already going on, and what I need to do as a safety professional is to keep those practices alive. Who can tell me a story about how to do that?

  5. Cameron Veivers Reply


    Your closing paragraphs are what we should be encouraging in the safety community. Caring. Caring enough to intervene on a personal level and not from the airconditioned comfort of an office putting words on a screen.


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