Management’s responsibility for safety

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SMSs are predicated on top management’s strong and visible commitment to safety. No SMS will be effective without senior management devoting the attention, time, and resources to safety as a core value of the organization.

The core values of an organization are those ideals that form the foundation on which the organization conducts itself. They are not transient in nature; rather they are constants that define the organization and govern its processes, behavior, relationships, and decision-making. Core values are deeply ingrained in the organization and are non-negotiable.

Core values are integrated into all levels and all functions of the organization. It has been said that if you can find anyone in the organization who is unable to tell you, even generally, the organization’s core values, they aren’t really core values. Top leadership has a responsibility to establish those core values, and to promote them throughout the organization.

Senior management establishes safety as a core value by making it an integral part of the organization’s management system. Once the core values are established, management must set objectives and goals that support the safety value, and hold workers accountable for achieving the goals. No discontinuity can exist between values and these objectives and goals; the first indication of management compromising a safety value in order to achieve an operational or financial goal will undermine a great deal of work to culturalize safety in the organization.

Accountability versus blame

After the safety goals and objectives are established, management must establish a plan for accountability. Many people confuse the terms accountability and blame; these terms have substantively different meanings. In practice, accountability means that someone is responsible and answerable for an activity. This means that someone may need to produce an account of their knowledge of the activity in question. That accounting may be used for understanding the circumstances of that activity and, hopefully, used to improve the system that produced that activity.

Plans for accountability should be formal, specific, and comprehensive. All significant safety activities should be clearly assigned to someone who is responsible and accountable.

Blame goes further. Blame is accountability deserving of censure, discipline, or other penalty. Brenner (2005) suggests that blame and accountability differ in at least four dimensions:

1.    Learning vs. punishment—As stated earlier, an accountability culture seeks to learn from the situation so that it is not repeated. Blame simply seeks to identify the culprit, and the process often goes no further.

2.    Incidence of fear—If someone is fearful of being held accountable, blame is probably involved. There should be no fear in being held to account for something.

3.    Organizational chart altitude distribution—Responsibility and accountability are found at all levels on an organizational chart. When most of the people we find accountable are concentrated at the bottom of the chart, it is likely that we are actually assigning blame.

4.    Acknowledging interdependence—When we seek the learning opportunities that are afforded by exercising accountability, oftentimes there are numerous people accountable. When we seek blame, we’re usually satisfied with finding just one person to punish.

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