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Safety in the workplace is every worker’s responsibility. That doesn’t mean everyone has to fend for themselves, but it does mean every worker has to be accountable for their and their coworkers' safety.
What Is Accountability?
People often think accountability means placing the blame on someone or enforcing a punishment after an incident occurs. If we take an individualistic view, that's how we'll see it, but it's not what I'm talking about here.
Accidents don't happen single-handedly. Behind every accident, there are a number of direct and indirect causes, often made up of many (often small) unsafe acts and unsafe conditions.
So when we talk about accountability for workplace safety, what we really mean is ensuring open communication about any and every problem in the workplace. When workers are encouraged to bring up issues in order to help the company and its workers, that's accountability in action.
How Do I Foster Accountability in My Workplace?
If you've got employees who keep mum about the issues they face, either because there's no precedent for speaking up or they fear losing their jobs if they do, it might seem like you've got a losing battle on your hands.
Far from it.
Here are five steps to (slowly but surely) give your workers a sense of accountability and improve the safety in your workplace.
1. Define Expectations
Workers sometimes don't do what we hope they will simply because no one has asked them to do it. It happens more often than you think. It's easy to assume that everyone will know that a near miss should be reported, that machinery that makes a funny noise should be stopped and inspected, or that they should probably stay home if they have a contagious illness – but you know what they say about assumptions...
Make sure to communicate exactly what is expected of workers. What sorts of things should they report? Who should they report it to? If they have a suggestion to make the workplace even a tiny bit safer, who should they tell?
Making sure there is open communication in the workplace starts with you. So, let workers know exactly what you expect from them.
2. Make Sure Management Is Approachable
Even if you're open and available, it will be hard to promote a climate of accountability if everyone in management stays shut off behind closed doors and never greet the workers on the ground floor.
Workers need to know that they can approach management with an issue. But that openness needs to be reciprocal: management can't ignore or reprimand workers for coming to them with concerns.
Your success here will depend in part on who you work under (some management teams aren't as open as others). But you can do your part to encourage the right attitude. Start by showing them the value of an accountable workforce, and that they can get those benefits with a bit of approachability.
(Learn more in Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture.)
3. Be Flexible
Business isn't the way it used to be. Most workers don't land jobs for life anymore, and if they stay with the same company for years, they will likely be shifted around from position to position.
When someone's work gets reassigned, they move to a new post at the company, or their responsibilities change, it comes with new challenges. These workers will need more assistance and have more concerns than usual. Prepare for this and be ready to give them a bit more of your time than usual while they adjust.
4. Be Positive
Accountability is all about taking responsibility for workplace safety.
Often, we approach this negatively, by looking for someone to blame when things go wrong. But it's far more effective to take a positive attitude toward accountability. Workers need to know that every day, they're doing their part in keeping the workplace safe.
That kind of positivity helps every worker take safety seriously instead of just worrying that they'll get in trouble if an incident happens.
5. Stay on Top of Things
Accountability isn't a fire-and-forget solution; it's a fire you need to keep burning.
Check in with workers regularly. Asking them how things are going, if they have suggestions to improve the work, or if they have any questions or concerns will keep safety at the top of their minds. It will also send a strong signal that you're ready and willing to hear their concerns and give them the help they need.
Again, accountability starts with you. Don't just give workers a pep talk and spend the rest of the year holed up in your office. Show them that you're still thinking about their safety throughout the year.
Accountability can take time and determination, but it's worth cultivating. Open communication is the key to ensuring everyone gets to punch in the clock and go home at the end of their shift.