What Responsibility?

By David H. Glabe, P.E. / March 1, 2009

A very good friend of mine asked me why we always talk about safety from the top down but never from the bottom up.   In other words, why is the focus on management and not the worker?  He suggested that I look into the matter and perhaps offer an explanation or better yet, explain why it is everybody’s responsibility.

My career in the scaffold industry started a couple of years after the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, started.  I recall at that time that nobody was quite sure what role OSHA was to play in construction and more specifically, the scaffold industry.  Since those days in the early 1970’s much has changed but little has changed.  Scaffolds are still being constructed poorly, employees are getting injured and killed and employers, but not employees, are still being cited.  Why is it that the employers are getting cited and the employee isn’t?  After all, does the law not say that not only the employers are to comply with the OSHA standards but the employee is to comply with the standards also?  That may be a surprise to more than one worker.

Historically, OSHA has pursued the employer over the employee for a number of reasons.  For one, it usually is more effective to go after the employer since he/she has control (it is assumed) over the employee.  Secondly, citing employer/employers on a jobsite and effecting the changes at that level results, supposedly, in more responsible action by everyone on the jobsite.  Third, there may be a political factor that plays a part in who is cited.  (I suspect there isn’t documentation to confirm that.)  Finally, if you are going to fine somebody you might as well go after whoever has the money and chances are the employer has more than the employee.

However, one must wonder if the unbalanced enforcement efforts aren’t producing the detrimental result of discouraging good safety habits by the employee.  Let’s face it: the threat of a fine (loss of beer money) will trump positive encouragement any day.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t encourage workers to practice, think, and act safely, it’s just that some employees don’t understand anything other than the threat of a fine.  In other words, knowing you won’t get a speeding ticket can have the unintended result of you driving over the speed limit.

This is where the responsibility concept comes into play.  Why is it that some people work safely only when a safety person is watching?  This is the human response, I suppose, but I’m an engineer, not a psychiatrist.  Is it too much to expect a worker to behave responsibly?  Is it too much to expect a worker to accept responsibility for his/her actions?  I think not.  Since responsibility, as described above, means a capacity for being held accountable, it is not unreasonable to expect employees to be held responsible for their own actions.  This is not to say that employers can avoid their responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their employees, as required by the Occupational Safety & Health Act of 1970. But it would seem that a partnership is required between the employer and employee where the responsibilities and rewards are shared.

I don’t think I’m being naïve here.  Unfortunately we do have employers who have not accepted their responsibility as employers.  But for those employers who can show that they have fulfilled their obligation and desire for a safe workplace, then it is incumbent on the employee to accept his/her share of the responsibility for safety.  The employee should not be allowed to shirk a responsibility that can result in self injury.  It just doesn’t make sense to pretend that the employer has that much control that he/she can force the employee to behave.  Frankly, statistics confirm that it hasn’t been possible to do that.  We continually blame the employer, while ignoring the reality that the employee is an essential partner in safety success at the workplace. OSHA has exacerbated the situation by introducing the OSHA “Multi-Employer Work Site Policy (Theory)” so that other employers can be held accountable for the actions of employees.  While there may be some validity for this approach, it still does not hold the culpable employee responsible.

There is no doubt we need an agency like OSHA.  But can you imagine what might happen if the employer, employee, and OSHA worked together to improve safety?  Right now the employer and OSHA are working with each other, but we treat the employee as the orphaned child who lacks the maturity or intelligence to be an adult.  It is time to let the employee grow up and accept responsibility for his/her actions.

Tags: Scaffolding employee safety employer responsibility Multi-Employer Work Site Policy OSHA OSHA Standards & Regulations Resources Safety Hazards

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David H. Glabe, P.E.

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