Is Blame Game Ruining Your Safety Culture?

Mistakes are all the time at all types of organisations from aviation to healthcare and from government departments to retail. It is a natural and inevitable part of our everyday interaction with a complex world. But those who have watched the Canadian documentary Mayday (a.k.a Air Crash Disasters) may have a clue why it’s not the incident that matters the most but the organisational response to it. 

Being blamed or retaliated for mistakes that were not one’s fault, can destroy trust in employees and literally infect the culture from open to mistrustful or even poisonous.

When something goes wrong, it is in human nature to point fingers and find someone to blame. Whether the leaders doing this think they’re acting purposefully or just looking for a quick way to solve the issue, playing the blame game can ultimately lead to a disastrous safety culture. 

How Does The Blame Game Affects Your Safety Culture?


When incidents occur in the workplace (near misses, accidents, etc.), there are two primary responses. 

In organisations with a culture of punishment and retaliation, someone will bear the brunt of the event. 

The initial incident leads to the blame game. Corporations often want conclusions to reports and to appear as though they are taking action, so they opt for a scapegoat. This may seem easiest but there is a better response: learning from the mistake.

When an organisation chooses the first response, it alienates its workers and cultivates an atmosphere of distrust. If a worker makes an earnest mistake or just records an error that is systemic in nature, they can be hesitant to disclose it as they dread finger-pointing or worse, being treated like a pariah.

Failure to report mistakes or faults in the company’s safety management system is likely to lead to incidents or costs to the company in the long run as less corrective actions are taken or their responsibility is solely pushed to a small percentage of the workforce.

In a culture like this, fear often results in fewer observations being filed by employees overall. This affects the overall safety of company workers. Without awareness and transparency of unsafe conditions or safety issues, management cannot address concerns. When or if an incident occurs as a result of longstanding safety issues, negligence may be cited, leading to additional costs to the business.

Contrary to the leaders considering that they are just teaching a lesson, there is absolutely nothing any company can gain from the blame game.

Tips To Deal With The Blame Game


Analyse Your Existing Health, Safety & Environment Systems


It’s important to understand where your HSE policy is doing well and where there may be room for improvement.

  • Is your incident/near-miss reporting system effective and truly accessible to everyone? 
  • Does your management handle reports with open communication, urgency and competence? 
  • Does your organisation embrace not-so-great news? 
  • How do your workers feel about safety in their workplace?
  • Does anyone feel the fear of being blamed for reporting incidents?

Investigate issues thoroughly


Suppressing the initial reaction of assuming person closest to mistake being negligent or malign and instead seeing every issue and mistake as a learning opportunity and investigating them thoroughly achieves two things:

  1. The investigation may reveal crucial systemic improvements that actually lead to meaningful safety improvements
  2. Culturally the people and their close coworkers feel empowered to be open about other error and issues leading to even more safety improvements

Know when to blame


In a proper investigation organisation may well find out that it was due to negligence of the employee that the error actually happened. It is these circumstances that NOT punishing deservedly can lead to more negligence. People, especially professional employees actually expect punishment and blame when they have behaved detrimentally. In industries like Aviation, where the whole system and all businesses depend on the safety track record, not punishing for malign behaviour leads to other pilots requiring it.

Enable anonymous reporting


Certain near misses and incidents may be so critical in nature and close to so disastrous consequences that even in organisations with open safety cultures, people may still feel anxiety in reporting them. Being able to report the incident without your name associated with it, is an effective way to lower the threshold for reporting.

For whistleblowing this kind of confidentiality is a natural requirement but it shouldn’t be any different whether people are whistleblowing coworkers’ wrongdoings or admitting their own.

Set An Example


Authorities should observe their reactions to reports and issues. If the CEO or supervisor of a business line encourages talking openly about problems, workers will follow. Of course, this cannot be all talk and no action. If you talk about dealing with issues then when the time comes you must act on your word and be compassionate to your workers. 

What’s more, leaders of the organisations can actually go even further: they can accept and take the blame on themselves. The study conducted by Nathaniel J. Fast et al. from Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California found that even though blame is contagious, this was not the case among those organisations where employees felt psychologically secure.

Always focus on learning


Do not talk about safety only when there are problems! Find channels to constantly educate workers on safety and safety reporting systems. Communicate openly about cases and their results to promote learning from incidents. Part of this requires having effective safety reporting systems and policies that are accessible, open, and allow anonymous reporting for whistleblowing if that’s what workers prefer.

Change The Game


An open and communicative culture is the best way to go. Investigate incidents and share the lessons learned. It’s one of the best ways to encourage reporting from your workers and avoid the blame game.

If you're looking for a incident reporting platform that is hyper easy-to-use, helps to avoid blame game, includes two-way communication, has built-in workflows for multiple use cases and more, test drive our incident reporting platform or  contact us for more information!

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Safety Management Incident Reporting

Arttu Vesterinen

Chief Executive Officer