Who is Responsible for Health and Safety in the Workplace?

There are many misconceptions when it comes to health and safety responsibilities in the workplace. Is health and safety an inherently internal responsibility, akin to an individual’s morality, because it’s the right thing to do? Is it the sole responsibility of the employer? Is there anyone who is not responsible for health and safety?

A Simple, Complicated Answer

The question of who is responsible for health and safety can simply and complexly be answered: everybody is responsible for health and safety. It seems simple on the surface, but broken down, it can be quite complex.

Everybody is Responsible for Health and Safety: The Simple Answer

In 1976, Dr. James Ham was commissioned to generate a report regarding the health and safety conditions faced by miners. This report, known as the Ham Commission, resulted in the Occupational Health and Safety Act’s creation and passing into force. The Ham Commission was also first to introduce the concept of an IRS, or Internal Responsibility System.

The foundation of the IRS is that safety is the responsibility of everyone, from the CEO to workers, and everyone in between. It’s based on the concept that health and safety is ingrained in all aspects of the organization, and that all employees need to foster the culture of safety. When workplace safety is viewed as an entity over which everyone has control, rather than an administrative function managed by a few people, that is the IRS in action.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) lists the functions of the IRS as:

  • Establishing responsibility sharing systems
  • Promoting safety culture
  • Promoting best practice
  • Helping develop self reliance
  • Ensuring compliance

When everybody is responsible for safety, the cultures and attitudes that support it are strengthened. Workers who take an active role in workplace safety are more likely to buy into the workplace safety program. Worker buy-in increases compliance with policies and procedures, and it also increases correct use of PPE, reporting of hazards, and general safe work behaviour.

Everybody is Responsible for Health and Safety: The Complicated Answer

As discussed above, everybody under the IRS is responsible for health and safety in the workplace. However, sometimes umbrella statements need to be dissected to develop a stronger understanding. In this case, while everyone is responsible for health and safety under the IRS, employers, supervisors, workers, constructors, the JHSC and many others have specific roles and responsibilities that need to be understood in order to get a clear idea of where each part fits within the overarching concept of the IRS.

Think of the IRS as a Gestalt, where the whole is greater than a sum of its parts. The whole concept of the IRS is greater than the sum of its parts—the individual responsibilities—because the entire overarching concept depends on everyone fulfilling their individual responsibilities within the system.

Who is Responsible for What?

When the IRS is broken down, the roles and responsibilities of the various players can be defined in more detail.

Employers Health & Safety Responsibilities

Employers have a lot of responsibility when it comes to workplace safety. Chief among them is the responsibility to take every reasonable precaution for the safety of workers. This encompasses the concept of due diligence, so while it can easily be said that safety is everybody’s responsibility, being able to prove due diligence (all precautions for safety were undertaken) rests with the employer. Ways to demonstrate due diligence include, but are not limited to:

  • Creating and implementing policies and procedures that support the safety initiatives and goals of the organization
  • Training all workers on the health and safety program and specific job-related tasks, hazards, and safe operating procedures
  • Supporting safety initiatives
  • Enforcement of policies
  • Leadership through example
  • Inspection of the workplace for unsafe conditions
  • Responding promptly to correct unsafe conditions
  • Providing Personal Protective Equipment
  • Maintaining equipment in good working order

Supervisors Health & Safety Responsibilities

Like employers, supervisors have quite a bit of responsibility, including the same overall responsibility to ensure the safety of workers. A supervisor has added responsibilities because they are in charge of a job process and people, and they are considered to be competent under the Act. In fact, employers must assign supervisory roles to those who fit the legislated definition of competence. Along with the responsibility for ensuring the safety of all workers, supervisors’ responsibilities include, but are not limited to:

  • Ensuring workers work in compliance with health and safety policies and procedures, and the Act
  • Ensuring that PPE is worn when necessary
  • Offering training and education about potential or actual hazards

Workers Health & Safety Responsibilities

Employees aren’t just expected to follow the “safety rules” of the workplace. Workers have health and safety responsibilities, too! They are expected to be an active part of the IRS, and contribute to a safer workplace for everyone. It’s often said that safety starts at the top, with support from management and strong leadership; however, safety is also like a grassroots movement that starts with workers and is given life through worker participation.

Workers are responsible for working safely. The Act makes it explicit that workers are not expected to engage in horseplay. The preservation instinct also helps police this. For the most part, workers are motivated to work safely and in compliance with the legislation and workplace policies because they inherently understand that to not do so could result in catastrophic injury or even death. The impact of such would have ripple effects, starting at the worker, expanding out to immediate family for whom they provide, extended family who love them dearly, and friends and colleagues who would all be devastated if anything were to happen.

Responsibilities of the worker include, but are not limited to:

  • Reporting known or potential hazards
  • Working in compliance with legislation and workplace policies and procedures
  • Wearing PPE properly, and as required
  • Report defective equipment
  • Not removing or otherwise interfering with any machine guarding
  • Working in a safe manner (not engaging in pranks, horseplay, or feats of strength)

To help workers exercise their responsibilities within the IRS, foster a supportive environment that welcomes reporting, instead of discouraging it.

The IRS isn’t just built on the responsibilities of the employer, supervisors, and employees. The IRS is comprised of many moving parts that also include the JHSC, constructors, licensees, and others. But, regardless of the sum of the parts, it is how all of the pieces come together to operate as a single entity that truly gives the IRS life. Like a well-oiled machine, an IRS with all pistons firing will operate much better than an IRS where some pieces are missing, or at sub-standard performance levels. So, next time someone asks who is responsible for health and safety at your workplace, go ahead and take the easy road and tell them the answer: everybody is responsible for health and safety in the workplace.

Written by Jennifer Miller | Curriculum Development Coordinator


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