I have a little wager for you this month. I bet that you could walk in to any workplace and ask any worker “Whose responsibility is safety?” and they would give you the answer, “mine”. I’m not convinced that this is true internationally, but in the UK we’ve definitely sorted this out.

I believe this because point seven of our culture assessment process asks this question, or more specifically, it asks whether people take responsibility for their own safety or leave it to management. I’m in the middle of quite a few culture assessments and I can count on my hand the number of operatives, team members and shop floor workers who’ve said that it isn’t their responsibility.

Wooden mannequin lecturing to bored wooden mannequins

Of course we have the Health and Safety at Work act 1974 to blame (thank?) for all of this. As you’re very aware, it makes clear that safety is a personal responsibility and this is certainly drummed home at every opportunity. If you get the chance, try chatting to your average service engineer, contractor or even humble consultant about how many times they’ve been through an induction that makes this very clear. You may see their eyes glaze over…

OK, this is great isn’t it?

So what’s wrong with everyone knowing the right answer to this question? Surely we want people to know that safety is their own responsibility, because once they take responsibility then they take ownership of safety issues, making the workplace safer for everyone.

But there lies the problem. Responsibility in this context does not automatically lead to ownership. In fact, with the HASAWA 1974 message being drummed into people so intensely, it’s actually creating a large amount of apathy rather than ownership. Does it make sense that I have high scores for personal responsibility when I do a culture assessment and virtually no near misses reported in the workplace? Or high scores for personal responsibility and people ‘up in arms’ about the health and safety department not sorting out their problems quickly enough, despite the fact there is just one health and safety manager for a UK-wide manufacturing and service business, and he’s also responsible for occupational health?

Make responsibility meaningful and practical

The clue comes when you ask people what personal responsibility means to them and they give you a blank face. This tells you two things: firstly that they haven’t taken the time out (or been given the time out by managers) to consider and understand the importance of personal responsibility, and secondly that they don’t really know how to make this work practically.

Make the benefits of taking personal ownership real, help people understand the personal consequences of not doing so and give them some practical channels with which to do this. Only then will you start to see ‘true’ personal responsibility.