On March 1, 2017, a supervisor for a Canadian utility company was fined $28,000 for the 2014 workplace fatality of a lineman who was electrocuted by a broken power line that had not been rendered safe. While the supervisor argued that the worker should have taken the necessary precautions and that the employer requires only toolbox safety meetings before confronting hazards, the judge presiding over the case stated that a written safety plan should have been put in place.
The number of people implicated in this tragic incident—the worker, the supervisor, the employer—emphasizes how important it is for everyone to take responsibility for workplace safety.
The Cost of Workplace Injuries
That hefty fine is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to costs associated with workplace incidents. According to the UFCW, workplace injuries in Canada cost an estimated $19.8 billion annually. Many of these are due to incidents that could have been prevented by a proactive HSE program.
Companies also have to factor in the big hit they take in indirect costs. Employee illness, workplace accidents, and near misses all lead to lower levels of productivity, employee morale, and retention rates.
Workplace Safety Is Everyone's Responsibility
While many people are inclined to hold the employer fully responsible for workplace safety, there are limits to what an employer can do to keep everyone safe on the job. Making sure everyone makes it through the day unharmed requires collaboration at every level of an organization, from front-line employees all the way to upper management.
The employer is responsible for ensuring that safe work practices are in place, that employees are given proper training, and that a strong safety culture is maintained company-wide (learn more about Implementing a Safety Culture). Supervisors are charged with making sure that all safety procedures and regulations are followed by everyone on the factory floor, at the construction site, or out on service calls. Every employee, however, whether they have supervisory authority or not, is also responsible for reporting any hazard or negligence they observe.
Responsibility Vs. Accountability
In workplaces with a weak safety culture, safety becomes just a job description. Employees grow complacent when they think that safety is only the job of the supervisor, the safety officer, or the manager.
Sometimes, this attitude can be traced back to upper management. Unless they make the effort to show that worker safety is a core value for the company and take steps to help employees understand that it is everyone's responsibility to keep each other safe, we can hardly expect the workers to go the extra mile.
Employers should make it clear—through training, meetings, and safety messaging—that there is an important difference between responsibility and accountability (for advice on effective safety messaging, see In Sight, In Mind: Reinforcing Safety Policies and Procedures). Those two concepts are often used interchangeably, but there's an important difference: everyone should take responsibility for preventing an accident, but not everyone will be held legally accountable for it.
Taking Responsibility and Celebrating the Wins
No organization should rely solely on those legally accountable to ensure the safety of all team members. In fact, reaching safety targets like lowering lost-time injury rates, ensuring total compliance, and eliminating workplace fatalities should never be a matter of concern for only a handful of individuals (see The Journey to Zero! for a discussion of a zero accident rate).
On the contrary, every employee needs to understand their role in ensuring the safety of their co-workers. An HSE program will be much more effective if it can make every single worker feel like they play an important role in keeping all members of the team safe. To achieve this, employers should involve workers in the planning and execution of safety programs. They should communicate clearly what safety targets the company is hoping to achieve and how much progress they're making in reaching those goals. And, to really make them feel part of the team, employers should celebrate their safety wins with employees (find out How Using Recognition Programs Reinforces Good HSE Behaviour).
By building employee engagement and buy-in for safety initiatives, employers ensure that workers take responsibility for workplace safety instead of just doing enough to avoid getting into trouble.
Taking Ownership of Workplace Safety
Making sure people at every level of the organization take responsibility for HSE has very real consequences. Unfortunately, workers have lost their lives as the result of incidents that could have been prevented if everyone had done their part to ensure hazards were controlled and tasks were performed safely. It shouldn't take a tragedy to make us realize that we can't make sure everyone gets to go home safe unless we all take ownership of workplace safety.