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Frontline Fundamentals: Responsibility for Safety

You are responsible for your own safety and the safety of others.

Most people would say they agree with that statement, but do their actions reflect their agreement? Let’s consider that question in the context of the following incident investigation.

The Incident
Bob, who works in shipping and receiving, has just cut himself with his pocketknife while attempting to cut a zip-tie off a package. Randy, the shipping and receiving manager, is Bob’s immediate supervisor. Pam is Bob’s co-worker. Ron is the facility’s safety supervisor and is interviewing Bob, Randy and Pam as part of the investigation.

Bob’s Interview
Ron: Can you tell me what happened?

Bob: We have a specially designed box cutter we use for cutting zip-ties. It works really well, but we lost it. I told Randy we lost ours and he said he would get us another one. That was three weeks ago. What am I supposed to do, not work? I have a job to do, and I’m going to make sure it gets done.

Ron: What could we do to prevent this from happening again?

Bob: We need the right tools for our job. Someone needs to make sure we have them.

Randy’s Interview
Ron: Can you tell me what happened?

Randy: I guess Bob’s daddy didn’t teach him how to use a knife. The other thing is that I have told Bob at least a hundred times to use the box cutter for cutting zip-ties. Matter of fact, we had a safety meeting on that very topic yesterday morning. Who knows what he was thinking. You would think people would be smart enough not to stick their finger in front of a knife.

Ron: What could we do to prevent this from happening again?

Randy: I guess you just can’t fix stupid.

Pam’s Interview
Ron: Can you tell me what happened?

Pam: I didn’t see anything. I was unloading some pallets with the forklift on the other side of the dock. I had my seat belt on and was following the rules.

Ron: What could we do to prevent this from happening again?

Pam: Bob does his thing and I do mine. I can’t control what he does, but I want you to know I follow the rules. That would never happen to me. I always use a box cutter.

The Blame Game
In this scenario, Ron asked each interviewee two open-ended questions. Without any prompting, Bob immediately blamed Randy, Randy blamed Bob and Pam absolved herself of any responsibility for her team. These responses, which are similar to what you likely would hear during an incident investigation, reveal how much we believe we are responsible for our own safety and the safety of others.

Understand this: It’s your arm. By that I mean if you lose an arm in a workplace incident, you can blame anyone you want to, but the reality is you’re the one going home without an arm. And even if you aren’t the one hurt in an incident, you don’t want to go home knowing you could have prevented a co-worker from losing his or her arm.

So, what does it look like to be responsible for safety? Author Jack Canfield answers this question in “The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.” Being responsible for safety means taking 100 percent accountability and giving up all blaming and complaining. In the incident described earlier, Bob should not blame his injury on Randy or on losing the box cutter. As Bob’s manager, Randy needs to understand his role and his responsibility for ensuring Bob’s safety. It was not Bob’s dad who didn’t teach him how to use a knife; it was Randy. And Pam cannot turn a blind eye to her co-workers. See something, say something, do something.

Canfield also provides readers with a simple equation that helps clarify taking full responsibility: Event + Response = Outcome, or E + R = O. To use the equation, you need to clearly define your outcome and then adjust your response or responses until you achieve that outcome. Your response or responses are what matter, not the event as it may be out of your control.

Your Outcome and Responses
When using Canfield’s equation, start by defining your outcome as zero consequential errors. Notice that I didn’t say zero injuries or incidents. The first principle of human performance tells us that people are fallible and even the best make mistakes. Accepting this, we need to design safety programs that reduce errors and protect people through safety by design and defense in depth.

I want to point out that it is of vital importance that you believe your outcome is possible. Never be like the sports team I recently encountered that couldn’t secure additional room nights at a hotel. They had booked rooms for only one night because they had expected to lose in the first round of a tournament; after they won, they struggled to find a place to stay.

After clearly defining your outcome, your responses become simple and automatic. You provide proactive, positive, rational responses such as speaking up when you see that someone is not following a rule. You report near misses, near hits and inconsequential errors. You suggest ideas for improvement. You actively participate in training and work planning. You work in a safe manner and ensure your team is working safely. Simply put, you become a safety leader.

You also understand how your actions can affect others and that you cannot be selfish when it comes to safety. It’s easy to say your actions affect only you, but that is not true. Others are affected when you recognize a hazard but say nothing during a pre-job briefing. Others are affected when you do not communicate while operating equipment. Others are affected if a pole is not set to the correct depth or structures are not built to specifications.

In summary, safety isn’t about assigning blame or determining fault – it is about taking responsibility. To paraphrase Charles R. Swindoll, life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. Establish defense in depth: You protect yourself and your co-workers. Your co-workers protect themselves and you. The company protects everyone. Take 100 percent responsibility for ensuring zero consequential errors happen on your team.

About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute ( His experience includes operations management, safety and training roles. McPeak holds multiple safety and training certifications and has received numerous awards. He also has served as chairman of Task Team One of the OSHA ET&D Partnership, as a member of Incident Prevention’s editorial advisory board and as a member of the North Carolina Apprenticeship Council. Reach him at

About Frontline: The Frontline program provides interactive, engaging classroom training that empowers employees to become better utility safety leaders. Subject matter experts facilitate the learning process and cover four areas – safety leadership, incident prevention, human performance, and standards and operations – critical to safety success. Visit for more information.


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Leadership Development, Frontline Fundamentals


About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CIT, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the Director of Education for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute ( and the author of "Frontline Leadership – The Hurdle" and "Frontline Incident Prevention – The Hurdle". He has extensive experience and expertise in leadership, human performance, safety and operations. McPeak is passionate about personal and professional development and believes that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are key to success. He also is an advanced certified practitioner in DISC, emotional intelligence, the Hartman Value Profile, learning styles and motivators. Reach him at