The evolution of blame

How responsibility and accountability have been shifted to workers

The evolution of blame
Dave Rebbitt

In health and safety, the blame game is one of those things that is very difficult to stamp out. Like a virulent infection, it is resilient and persistent. It is all the things we wish health and safety could be.

Despite mostly well-meaning crusades, the cult(ure) of blame (like zero) has remained with us, with many in leadership convinced workers are most often the architects of their misfortune – just like it was 100 years ago.

If something occurs and it is undesirable, someone is to blame.

Many of those in health and safety have tried, strained against the tide. So it is not your fault and certainly not mine. Therein lies the problem.

We are victims of that which cannot be denied. Our humanity and genetics. When an undesirable event occurs, people are hardwired to find the culprit. Someone is to blame - and they must be found quickly.

Evolution has equipped us with a powerful brain. So powerful that we can rationalize almost anything. Our powerful brain helpfully fills in the blanks in reasoning and facts to create a compelling narrative that is often a complete fabrication.

Not you and me, but those others. Not those who are critical thinkers and analyze the facts. I was once at a safety conference and attended a session on critical thinking. The presenter was engaging. All I learned was that they did not understand critical thinking. I’m sure the reviews were good.

We live in a time where ideas become concepts, and concepts become theories. Theories become the truth. This is even though theories, by definition, are unproven concepts. Even despite the postulator of the theory clearly saying there is no empirical evidence to support the theory.

Things do not go sideways all at once. Things creep towards failure. Bad ideas and clouded reasoning lurk in the shadows, blossoming and spreading like mushrooms in the dark, fed by the dark hopes of many that they must be right.

In health and safety, we use many words and slogans. Surprisingly, they all have meanings that are not universally understood. Key words like accountability, responsibilities, and rights. All different things (hence the different words).

Accountability and responsibility are related. We all have responsibilities that can be delegated down through an organization. They can be delegated because accountability runs upward through organizations. This is the underlying tenet of health and safety law. The employer always is accountable for the safety of the workplace.

Rights are something unto themselves. They are, as some say, the aggregate of the capacities, powers, liberties, and privileges.

In the culture of blame, rights are not considered, and responsibilities are the weaponized ammunition of the blamethrower. Let me paint a picture of how this has evolved.

Learn more about the three worker rights under Canadian OHS laws here.

All workers have the right to refuse work they believe is unsafe. It is a power and liberty that can be invoked at any time. Its use is rare, and many realize this is a significant and troubling failure of the health and safety system at a fundamental level.

A right is a personal power and freedom to be exercised at the person’s discretion. Seems quite clear until we delve into what has happened over the past decade or so.

The language of that right has changed, not in legislation, but in the workplace. Few employers provide training to managers/leaders on rare work refusals. Many organizations do not have procedures for handling refusals that even meet the basic requirements of the law.

But all that aside, something curious occurred. Companies started framing worker rights, particularly the right to refuse, as the right and responsibility to refuse. Why is that? What does it mean?

If a worker does not exercise their right when the employer thinks they should have, they can be blamed. Sounds a bit absurd, I know.

Some companies now even put the responsibility to refuse unsafe work in the safety responsibilities of employees (workers only). This creeping change is quite prevalent in high-risk sectors.

Instead of a right to protect workers, giving them a final say to ensure their safety, they are responsible for using that right as the employer’s final barrier or protection. Exercising that right usually turns out poorly for workers forced to use that option. They are often seen as creating a problem instead of identifying one.

Now we see incident investigations that show that the worker failed to refuse the unsafe work, which makes it their fault. Clear and certain. Sounds extreme? Maybe, but this is not unique and certainly not isolated.

Take, for example, the use of worker hazard assessments. Workers are supposed to be involved. However, they are now held responsible for identifying and mitigating hazards (an employer’s legal duty). Worker failure to identify and mitigate a hazard is one of the leading causes of incidents?

What started out as everyone (read no one) being responsible for workplace safety became workers being empowered to be responsible for their own safety and held responsible for it by the employer.

Employers now tell workers they are responsible for their own safety and that of others. They are responsible for using their rights to protect the employer, and unsafe acts will never be tolerated. It is cult(ure) of blame. Engineered to blame the worker for any incident.

Incident investigations tend to have a subjective component and are not immune from bias. Regulators may buy into the argument that workers are responsible.

It is frustrating, you see, when the expensive and shiny safety program/system fails. Finding the causes can be challenging, time-consuming, and less satisfying. Perhaps hedging your bets is the best approach. You can convince workers of two things. First, safety is a priority, and second, it is their responsibility. Accountability and rights be damned.

Have we unwittingly filled our blamethrower with made up responsibilities so we can blaze a wide swath through the weeds of failure? The scorched earth of blame is devoid of facts or respect. Looks safe, though.