Internal responsibility system leads to safer workplace: Strahlendorf

The internal responsibility system, the underlying principle of many occupational health and safety programs, can effectively lead to continuous improvements in safety, says Peter Strahlendorf, a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Occupational and Public Health.
Strahlendorf, speaking at the annual Workplace Risk Management Year in Review, presented by Toronto-based law firm Gowlings, said an internal responsibility system (IRS) that fosters creativity and personal due diligence produces a health and safety management system that constantly drives down risk.

Often wrongly described — as a set of rights or policy-making process, for example — the IRS focuses on duties, Strahlendorf said. Each person in an organization is individually responsible for health and safety.

“Anyone can cause an accident, so everyone should prevent it,” he said.

 A well functioning IRS consists of three elements, Strahlendorf explained. For every position in an organization, a person’s authority, responsibility and accountability with regards to OHS should be clearly outlined. Just as workers have different job duties, they also take responsibility for health and safety in different ways, according to their job and the authority they have within the hierarchy.

“Everyone — no exceptions — is personally, directly responsible for health and safety as part of their job. It’s not government; it’s not the health and safety committee; it’s not the senior person alone; and it’s not the health and safety professional. It’s everyone,” he said.

“Health and safety are not separate activities. Too often people have that division in their minds: I work; someone else does health and safety for me. Everyone’s doing it 100 per cent of the time.”

In almost all cases, he added, when workers see a hazard or contravention, they can stop and fix it themselves. In this way, they take ownership of the problem. If they cannot fix it safely themselves and must report it, then the senior person becomes accountable.

“There’s an inherent engine to the IRS; people understand how it’s supposed to work. You get a hot potato. Fix it. If you can’t, move it up to a manager. The manager has more authority, more resources and fixes the problem — or not. Sometimes, it’s too big for the manager, so you move it up,” he said.

“The IRS is a dynamic, problem-solving machine based on risk, not on a kind of formal, quantitative engineering approach to risk, but a very day-to-day, due diligence type of risk assessment. What’s reasonable? How would a reasonable person respond?”

Strahlendorf distinguished between “phase one” of IRS, an essentially negative approach that emphasizes finding defects and hazards, and “phase two,” which is based on a modernized “quality” approach to safety: workers are encouraged to think of ways to improve processes and systems used in their particular jobs. How, for example, can a process be streamlined? Can it be simplified?

“World-class performers today — whether they use the term IRS or not — have an engaged workforce, where everyone’s thinking of ways to improve. It’s not the million-dollar suggestion; it’s a tidal wave of continuous, incremental improvement,” he said.

“A healthy IRS, he added, is 90 per cent of what people call a ‘safety culture’.”

Phase one of IRS effectively reduces risks, Strahlendorf said, but this success can lead to complacency. When workers feel safe, they stop seeing contraventions, and it’s hard to maintain motivation to improve safety further. In contrast, requiring workers to think about how they do their job and suggest improvements, as in phase two, greatly enhances motivation.

A person comes up with an idea, shares it with others and must persuade them it’s good. They may then see their idea implemented.

“People are given time, money and resources to test things out. They get credit for it. The motivation comes from the satisfaction of carrying it out and the recognition of what you’ve done,” he said.

“It’s motivation from within. What’s the best way to do health and safety — external motivation, sticks and carrots? Or is it internal? You’re doing health and safety because you want to.”

To ensure accountability at all levels, Strahlendorf said, an effective evaluation or auditing system needs to be implemented. Surveys, interviews and observations identify the system’s weaknesses and strengths and should include questions on, for example, the employee’s perception of how others are performing in the IRS and whether the “IRS analysis” is being applied to problems.

The IRS is a simple idea, Strahlendorf said, but is a core idea in health and safety.

“If everyone in the organization,” he summed up, “is personally doing everything they can reasonably do — fracturing the chains of causation, driving risk down as low as it can reasonably go — you go for longer and longer periods of time without any losses.”