Expert Commentary

Everyone Is Responsible for Safety: The Myth and Solution

In many organizations, the thinking behind the "everyone is responsible for safety" idea is to create an employee mindset to proactively engage in the creation of a safe work environment for everyone. The basis for this thinking is that if everyone is actively engaged, then the risk of injury should be minimized due to the concerted grass-roots effort.


Construction Safety
January 2016

Not only will all the employees benefit from this approach through fewer accidents, but they should experience satisfaction in witnessing the positive result of their engagement, which created a safer work environment. This should also lead to improved morale.

I was speaking to a group of about 250 people in a seminar at a safety conference. To make a point, someone mentioned that "in reality," everyone was responsible for safety. When I asked the group exactly how this could be managed effectively, no one had a good answer. Though this may sound good in theory, in practice, it is not effective because holding a group accountable is not practical and, therefore, unmanageable in practice. There are also other reasons that make this particular approach to affecting safety performance ineffective.

Trouble Assessing the Situation

The first step in an individual’s decision to intervene is the recognition that another individual requires assistance. To take action, the bystander has to realize that the other person is not aware of the hazard and may possibly get injured unless given a warning. Some of the practical reasons why individuals hesitate in taking action in regard to safety may be involved with the assessment of the situation.

  • What one individual may consider as being unsafe, another may feel is perfectly safe. So the observer may assume that the situation is safe enough when, in fact, it is not. But because of this assessment, this person may not do anything about it.
  • The observer may think that the situation and associated exposure pose minimal risk and that it does not warrant intervention, as the other person is experienced and should be able to handle it.
  • Even if the observer deems that the other person is in a situation that may be potentially hazardous, the observer may assume that the person is aware of the hazard and will take it into account in his or her performance of the task.
  • If there are others in the area, then the observer may assume that one of the other persons present has already alerted or will alert the exposed employee and, as a result, do nothing. (See my article, Stop Work Authority and the Bystander Effect, from July 2015.)
  • In the case of a supervisor who is faced with a critical goal and the need to "get the job done," the supervisor may not say anything about a hazard, as the task may take minimal time (meaning the exposure is limited), and the worker engaged in the activity is experienced. Given those factors, the supervisor decides that no intervention will be forthcoming.
  • If the observer works for a different subcontractor, that person may feel that he or she does not have the authority or the expertise to say something about the situation he or she assumes is unsafe.
  • The observer may feel less experienced than the person performing the task and, therefore, not voice concern over the potential hazard.
  • The observer may feel reluctant to voice concern for fear that others may ridicule that concern. This is especially applicable to people who do not have an affinity for affiliation.
  • The observer may be busy and feel that others who have time will intervene and, as a result, feel justified in not doing anything about the situation.

The Presence of Others

There may be many underlying reasons why one worker may not take any action on a construction site once aware of a situation that may potentially injure those working in or around possible hazards. This may also be explained by a number of sociopsychological concepts. More importantly, it actually may create a situation where many people will do little or even nothing to further the cause of safety. A number of social psychological experiments have demonstrated that individuals may fail to assist others in situations where they become aware of potential hazards not due to indifference but, rather, due to the presence of other people in the area. This is explained by the "diffusion of responsibility" theory and the principle of social proof.

Per Wikipedia, "[d]iffusion of responsibility is a sociopsychological phenomenon whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_responsibility). Each individual may assume that since everyone is responsible, there has to be a number of other people who can take action. Therefore, there is little pressure to take action. The end result may actually be that everyone is going to make that very same assumption, and no one will actually do anything to further the cause of safety.

Another reason for inaction involves the principle of social proof. This principle states that we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct.1 In situations where we are not sure what the correct action or behavior ought to be, we look to see what others are doing. As a rule, people make fewer mistakes if they act in accordance with social evidence than not. Usually, when a larger number of people are doing the same thing, it is the right thing to do. In a way, when there is doubt about what a person should do, it becomes a shortcut to deciding what to do. When the other people in the area fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that any form of action or response is not required.

This sort of thinking may even lead to the conclusion that taking any action is not appropriate. Other researchers have found that onlookers will tend to be less likely to intervene if the situation is perceived to be unclear, open to interpretation, or enigmatic. Per Wikipedia, "[t]his phenomenon tends to occur in groups above a certain critical size and when responsibility is not explicitly assigned. It rarely occurs when the person is alone. Diffusion increases with groups of three or more" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffusion_of_responsibility).

Tragedy of the Commons

Another possible mechanism that may drive the derailment of thinking that everyone is responsible for safety may be the "tragedy of the commons" idea. According to Wikipedia, the term, popularized by Garrett Hardin, represents situations where individuals driven by self-interest "behave contrary to the best interests of the whole" group. This concept was based on the effect of unregulated grazing on "common land"—a practice in medieval England. The land (pasture) was owned by the manor, and commoners grazed their herds on it and paid the manor for the privilege. A commoner’s primary focus was feeding his or her herd with no concern for other commoners or the sustainability of the grazing. This practice was also used in relationship to common lands and village greens in the American colonies, where the village owned the land, and individual villagers had the right to graze their animals there (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons).

We can see the "tragedy of the commons" concept at play concerning sustainability issues today in situations such as global warming, pollution of the atmosphere, ocean fisheries, sustainable development meshing with economic growth, environmental protection versus industry practices, etc. The "tragedy of the commons" idea may play a role in occupational situations where individuals have to achieve some form of production to meet operational goals and do not see any benefit to investing time and effort to ensure that others are working safely.

The Management Dilemma

If the organization is truly interested in creating a safe work environment, then making an ineffective statement such as "everyone is responsible for safety" is not useful nor is it effective. Such a statement without a framework enabling everyone to actually engage in the process represents wishful thinking. It is understood that workers work because they need to, and so they are going to do what they have to do to keep their jobs. Whatever the organization’s management states as being important, or whatever workers understand or perceive as being important, is going to affect the workers’ attitudes and drive their behavior at work. If workers are put in a position where they have to choose between conflicting expectations, they will choose the one that ensures their success in remaining employed.

If the organization has a culture that values or emphasizes production, then production is going to be the primary focus of the workforce. Supervisors are going to "push" for production. And, if there is anything (like safety) that may be perceived as detrimental to achieving that production goal, it may very well be ignored, with resulting adverse outcomes. What typically happens is organizations add a safety requirement to the performance mix without addressing the underlying drivers associated with the production requirements. Depending on how much pressure management applies to improve safety, outcomes will elicit a set of different reactions from the workforce. If the pressure for improvement in safety is weak, the workers are going to assume that management is not really committed to the new initiative and will eventually go on to some other one. This will result in cynicism on the workers’ part, so they might ignore the new safety initiative. If the pressure persists, they may pay lip services to it.

This approach of work, as usual, at the worksite will result in little if any improvement in safety outcomes. Therefore, management’s instinctual reaction to this is going to be ratcheting up the pressure on safety. Greater pressure on safety and no change in production expectations is going to create some internal conflict for the workers. They can no longer ignore this, so they will shift from passive indifference to some form of resistance. This could take the shape of subversion, subterfuge, cover up, etc. To avoid conforming, they may try to game the reporting or do the "right" things during site inspections and not at other times.

With some improvement in safety results, though not quite enough, management, in all likelihood, will exert even greater pressure to get the workforce to comply to show greater improvement in safety metrics. This causes the resistance to go "underground," and it manifests itself in more counterproductive ways. The safety initiative will be sabotaged. Workers will go out of their way to show how the safety initiative impacts production negatively. They will maliciously follow every safety rule or step while engaged in performing their task to show how they are hampered from being productive.

To create a culture where everyone (including management as well as the workers) values safety and actively participates in the process requires an integrated cross-functional approach. Management must map the workings of the organizational and operational systems and determine where the barriers to creating a safe work environment exist. This will entail a diligent and exhaustive review of policies, procedures, processes, and practices. After the underlying barriers are identified and removed, the remedy starts with reiterating the organizational values; articulating a compelling vision; devising a comprehensive winning strategy; and setting clear objectives, meaningful measures, and targets.

Before attempting a major change initiative, it might be wise to find the less disruptive avenues that may lead to performance improvement. These initiatives will make some changes to existing processes that are already in use. Successful implementation should be relatively easy, and this will also get the organization used to change initiatives. If the implementation goes well, people will be less likely to be concerned or resist later changes. There are many areas in operations where small changes will result in substantial improvement of safety outcomes. Some "low-hanging fruit" opportunities that should be easy to accomplish can be found in the fundamental elements of management, which are planning, organizing, directing, staffing, and controlling.

  • Integrated planning. Planning is a fundamental pillar of construction operations. Just about everything in construction has to be planned. Successful construction companies have management and field personnel who generally are effective planners. It is through planning that the appropriate materials are secured, delivered, and installed. It is through effective planning that all trades work harmoniously on the work site. Planning is an ongoing process that starts before construction and is carried out during the execution of work to ensure successful completion of the project.

    The process has to be modified to make managing the risk of injury a cornerstone of the process. With effective integrated planning, the project staff can ensure that all the necessary elements required to build the project successfully are combined with the identified potential risks of injuries so as to achieve both production and safety goals. This effort will ensure safe and effective project delivery by minimizing disruption, increasing efficiency, and lowering costs.

    The fact that an incident involving some element of safety on the construction site causes disruptions, inefficiency, and loss begs the question, why don’t construction companies address potential hazards and exposures to their workers as an integral part of their planning process? This highlights the need to incorporate safety into the fundamental functions of management. For this process to be effective, safety ought to be addressed before the project is bid and continue all the way through turnover.

  • Organizing. Management organizes how the company will function by creating a structure-devising system (policies and procedures) and a hierarchical structure of management functions to successfully achieve its goals and objectives. Management defines responsibilities and accountability to ensure the work is performed as planned. Managers provide the appropriate technology, facilitate communication, and ensure the flow of information and that given directions are clear and specific.

    Good organizational design helps communications, productivity, and innovation. It creates an environment where people can work effectively together. It means looking at the complex relationship between tasks, workflow, responsibility, and authority while making sure these all support the objectives of the business. How people interact and are incentivized directly affects how well the organization performs.

    Organizing the work, worksite, subcontractors, and staff is critical to effectiveness and efficiency. To be efficient, safety must be integrated into the organizational systems and processes. Prioritizing is required and determined by importance or urgency. It really takes a team of talented people applying their combined skills with a unity of purpose to more effectively manage work, solve problems, make decisions, and organize in ways that truly let them shine.

  • Directing. The various members of the supply chain, as well as workers on site, will need direction over the course of the project. Managers tell people what to do, how to do it, and when to have it completed. They assign roles and responsibilities, set standards, and define expectations while holding people accountable. Safety must be an integral part of directing the workforce. The need for direction is a function of the knowledge and experience of people involved. Appropriate selection will limit the amount of needed direction, which frees up management to do other important things.

    Decision making is an important function of management. Assigning capable staff to the field and hiring competent subcontractors creates a potential for teamwork. For employees to function well, there needs to be effective communication. The project manager should empower each person to make decisions that apply to his or her own groups and roles. This empowerment must be commensurate with each individual's level of experience and motivation. This speeds up problem solving as well as decision making.

  • Staffing. People are a key element of performance. Selecting the "right" people for the "right" tasks and making sure they are doing the "right" things at the "right" time is fundamental to achieving excellence in operation. This is a key factor in addressing the safety performance of the workforce and management’s active support and involvement. Managers routinely need to delegate tasks to others to meet project needs, so involving competent and experienced workers makes the project delivery process more effective.

    If you have formed a "smart" team and they clearly understand the vision of safe and efficient production, they should be empowered to make decisions that apply to their particular circumstance. In addition to speeding up problem solving and decision making, it will foster synergy as well as instill a sense of ownership throughout the entire team. Per Wikipedia, synergy is the ability of a group to outperform even its best individual member (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synergy).

  • Controlling. Management control systems are tools used to direct the organization toward its strategic objectives. Control is an important function for ensuring that the organization, operations, or projects are on target to meet all the critical goals and specific deadlines. Control is an integrated technique for collecting and using information to motivate and direct employee behavior and to evaluate performance. Safety must be integrated into the overall management control system.

Though not a complete list, these areas should help achieve some improvement with relatively limited effort and disruption to existing operational practices. In the present competitive business environment, organizations must encourage their employees to willingly and enthusiastically give their best efforts. This will only be accomplished if the employees trust the organization’s leadership, feel that they are treated fairly, and believe that they are valued. This fosters job satisfaction that leads to participation and involvement.

Conclusion

So, for the statement "everyone is responsible for safety" to become a reality in the sense that everyone actively is involved and striving to create a safe work environment, management has to enable them to do so. This comes about through careful thought and action. It requires planning, organizing, directing, staffing, controlling, and motivating. The organizational systems must be aligned, processes must be integrated, and the work climate must encourage open communication for workers to feel that they are treated fairly. Management must become leaders who value and motivate their workforce. Management’s actions and behaviors are a strong indication of their position on what is expected of their employees and how they feel about them. This is going to create—as well as sustain—a work climate that not only indicates, but also reinforces, that safe production garners recognition and results in job security.


1Cialdini, Robert B., Influence: Science and Practice, 4th ed. (Allyn & Bacon, 2001), 8 (http://www.influenceatwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Influence_SP.pdf).


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