What’s Riskier – Working Without a Net or Without Personal Responsibility?

Companies spend millions and millions of dollars trying to convince their employees that individual safety is the company’s NUMBER ONE PRIORITY. In my opinion, that is illogical, untrue and counter-intuitive to encouraging optimum vigilance in an employee. Certainly, management based safety programs are critical and greatly reduce on the job injuries; I’ve never said otherwise. But dangerous environments cannot be made “safe”, safer, sure – but never safe. There is no such state and believing otherwise is hazardous to your health.

I’m not so sure that relying exclusively on “empirical evidence” is the best road to common sense.  This, from  Where The Safety Rubber Meets the Shop Floor  “There is little empirical evidence that validates the important role management plays in establishing a climate that sustains safe job behaviors. There is even less information about how management influences the safety atmosphere of the workplace.” Whatever value statistics offer, they should not be a substitute for common sense and human nature.

When a trapeze artist is performing without a net, do you suppose he or she is more or less focused on not falling? I’ve never walked a tightrope before, but I can assure you that walking up a suspension cable feels very different when you’re tied in versus when you’re not.

Management might argue (sensibly) that a net is a very good idea, and will greatly reduce the likelihood of a fatal fall. But I don’t think it’s pithy or libertarian to suggest that reducing the likelihood of a catastrophic injury also reduces the level of fear, which in turn reduces the level of an employee’s situational awareness. That’s just human nature – at least, in the humans I’ve met and worked with: paradoxically, the presence of a net, or a harness, or even a pair of gloves, can reduce injuries while encouraging risk.  I do believe this results in an unintended consequence of many safety programs.

– Mike

5 thoughts on “What’s Riskier – Working Without a Net or Without Personal Responsibility?

  1. Hi Mike —

    Just so you know, the study you cite states in its conclusion, “Our results not only demonstrated that management place an important role in maintaining a safe workplace, which should be obvious, but that managers and supervisors do so in differing ways….” (p. 22)

    Sometimes you have to read to the end of these things to see how it all turns out.

    We all have a share the responsibility pie, no? Just watch which cherries you’re picking for it.

    – TL

  2. “What’s riskier-working with out a net or without personal responsibility?”

    Does it have to be an either/or situation? I think safety programs and personal responsibility can work hand in hand along with a large dose of common sense.

  3. From what I’ve read, Mike agrees that employers certainly share responsibility for employee safety and they should participate in such. What he quotes says “…establishing a climate that sustains safe job behaviors.” (I think the point is “sustains”) It doesn’t say anything that disputes that “management place[s] an important role in maintaining a safe workplace”.

    We can go back and forth on the nit picky aspects of this but I really think the point is: Don’t rely on your employer to KEEP you safe. Rely first on yourself and then all the others who say they care about your safety can get in line – the more the merrier.

    I really agree about the importance of taking responsibility for yourself whether you’re at work or not and it has been my experience that when someone is not paying attention to what they’re doing and instead relying on someone else to keep them safe, they are putting themselves at some level of unnecessary risk. And the companies who experience significant on the job injuries are inadvertently perhaps, contributing to the very thing they don’t want.

  4. Of course safety isn’t number on their minds, it’s making money! Safety is just so that they are not responsible. They meaning the bosses, whoever is on charge is really looking after him or herself that’s it, not the employee. Liability and money! Nobody wants to be sued because safety wasn’t important.


  5. I see the oil industry has been using the idea of personal responsibility to keep their employees safer for awhile.

    “Serious accidents and dangerous occurrences continue to happen on our offshore installations and onshore sites during routine operations. Analysis indicates that not following procedures and lack of risk awareness are contributory factors in many cases. Initiatives taken to date have delivered improvements in health and safety performance but have not achieved the desired incident reduction. A behavioural approach which actively engages everyone through personal responsibility is seen as the principal way forward.”


    I’ve looked at government sites and they seem to maintain that safety is employer responsibility. They advise employees to take “reasonable care.”

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