Many managers and safety professionals bemoan the dearth of "personal responsibility" and seek to imbue their workers and culture with an ethic of all workers watching out for themselves. But regrettably traditional approaches to building personal responsibility have not shown themselves to be "tried and true."

You'll note that in the title of my presentation and proceedings paper, "Personal Responsibility" is in quotation marks. This is because this term can indeed be loaded. Often, in fact, calls or pressures for self-control are ignored and can even backfire, resulting in pushback to the degree that some organizational members actually go out of their ways to "show them who's the boss," "not be pushed around," or similar resistant reactions and then actions.

Further, admonitions for "personal responsibility" are often in reality code for, "You're responsible, I'm not." I recall one incident many years ago where I was approached by a plant of a Fortune 500 manufacturing company that was beset with "accident repeaters" (a relatively few workers who were having a disproportionate number of accidents, sometimes of the same type, sometimes different ones), requesting me to craft an intervention that would reduce this repetition. The underlying assumption I heard – and have subsequently identified in many such situations with numerous other companies – is that accidents, especially repeated ones, are predominantly or totally due to faults or lacks inherent in the person who experienced these accidents, that these workers have personal problems that result in their becoming injured. These personal problems might stem from a lack of concern for their own safety, inability to direct their own attention (because they are easily distracted), are emotionally out of control to the degree that anger or discontent somehow causes them to engage in more at-risk actions, they carry over personal problems from home (they are unable to "leave their work at work and their home at home"), they are disconnected from co-workers and from the company, they are specifically motivated to undercut the company's safety mission and record, and so on.

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