Safety, Accountability, and Managers Who Don't Know Better

Management of safety is pretty simple:

You can blame and punish safety problems away or you can learn and improve.

The bigger and more complicated a safety management issue seems to be, the harder it is to both discipline away problems and improve safety performance at the same time.

I spend much of my time talking to organizational leaders who discuss in great detail the need for discipline and accountability.  These leaders often begin this conversation by saying something like this, “This safety stuff is fine and good, but at what point does personal accountability kick in?

Those words are code words for “If people were just better, smarter, or more obedient they would not have accidents on my job site.”

Either way, it is wrong headed and damaging to creating a safe and stable workplace.  What is even more frightening is the fact that “old thinking" actually moves the organization backwards in to worse reporting, worse prevention, and ultimately more accidents.

Why We Must Talk About Management’s Responses

Let’s start with the assumption that managers want what is best for the organization.  Managers don’t want to hurt people. Mangers want the organization to be stable, productive, and absolutely safe.  Given that assumption, what could a manger do that could possibly make safety worse – harder to manage, harder to prevent events, more accidents and injuries.

There are a couple of lessons laying hidden in manager’s behaviors that will help us better understand and discuss the need to punish accidents out of an organization.

  1. Managers have not had the opportunity to learn that the old ways of understanding behavior and systems have changed – a lot – in the last 15 years.
  2. Managers believe that planners are smarter than workers.

 Help Mangers Understand New Ways of Thinking

If we don’t have these conversations with managers – if we don’t teach them new ways to approach problem solving and safety management – where will these managers get this new knowledge?  The universe teaches me this lesson over and over again.  When I see managers going back towards “old school” behavior, my first response is to teach.

If your boss wants to punish safety into effectiveness – you should teach them why that idea is counterproductive and harmful.   After all, punishing a worker or doing something he or she did not intend to do with hopes of stopping that error the next time is destructive, stifles conversation, and is a waste of your time.  Fear does not motivate good workers.  Good systems create good results.   Create an opportunity for a conversation about the importance of the choice between punishment and improvement.  After some discussion they will believe it.

You are a teacher – a change agent – and culture guide and don’t forget it.

Planners and Workers are both Smart

We must stop thinking that if we would plan better, write a better procedure, do a better job of hazard identification, we would have avoided the bad thing that happened in our organization.

It is a strange set of truths:  Safety does not live in planning.  Yet planning is vital to safety.  We have to realize that safety exists in practice.  Workers are constantly being met with problems in the field in which they must create solutions.   That relationship around discovering a problem and uncovering a solution for that problem is where safety happens all day long, every day.

Pretending that planning has super-human power feels right and good, it's just not as powerful as post-job learning.  Planning and pre-job preparation is one part of a good safety management system.  It is not the best part.  It is not the most important part.  It is one good part of a how a safe organization does work.

It is a choice

The key is to realize that you must choose between discipline and learning.  You cannot have both at the same time.  If you choose to discipline the worker, you are choosing not to learn from the event.  If you choose to learn from the event, you have given away the opportunity to discipline the worker for screwing up.

Which one of these two choices makes for a better long-term strategy for your organization?


Todd Conklin

Written by Todd Conklin

Todd Conklin spent 25 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a Senior Advisor for Organizational and Safety Culture. Los Alamos National Laboratory is one of the world’s foremost research and development laboratories; Dr. Conklin has been working on the Human Performance program for the last 15 years of his 25-year career. It is in this fortunate position where he enjoys the best of both the academic world and the world of safety in practice. Conklin holds a Ph.D. in organizational behavior from the University of New Mexico. He speaks all over the world to executives, groups and work teams who are interested in better understanding the relationship between the workers in the field and the organization’s systems, processes, and programs. He has brought these systems to major corporations around the world. Conklin practices these ideas not only in his own workplace, but also in the event investigations at other workplaces around the world. Conklin defines safety at his workplace like this: “Safety is the ability for workers to be able to do work in a varying and unpredictable world.” Conklin lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and thinks that Human Performance is the most meaningful work he has ever had the opportunity to live and teach. Todd Conklin is also the author of several books, including "Pre-Accident Investigations". Dr. Conklin can be reached at

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