What is Accountability?

| July 27, 2007

In the 2007 revision of OHSAS 18001, a requirement was added for allocating, documenting and communicating accountabilities — as well as responsibilities. While accountability is not defined in OHSAS 18001, it is an important concept in a management system.  The dictionary definition is “the state of being accountable, liable or answerable.”  According to wikipedia, the word “accountability” is an extension of the terminology used in money lending systems that first developed in Ancient Greece.  One would borrow money from a money lender and would then be held responsible for their account to that party.

It is worthwhile, in this context, to explore the differences between authority, responsibility and accountability in an organization:

  • Authority is the right to make a decision or take an action
  • Responsibility is the obligation to ensure that an action is taken
  • Accountability is to be answerable for a particular activity or action to a particular entity

Although clearly related, these terms are not synonymous.  One may have the authority to take a certain action — for example, to spend money on behalf of the organization — but not be obligated to take that action.  Similarly, an individual may have an obligation to do something — for example, to ensure the organization complies with a particular legal requirement — but not be accountable.  The organization may lack a mechanism to hold that individual responsible (answerable) even if compliance is lacking.  Similarly,  an individual may be held accountable — e.g. fired for a particular action — even if he or she did not have the authority or the responsibility to accomplish the activity in question.

There are five key elements of an effective accountability system:

  1. Clearly specified standards for authority and responsibility
  2. Adequate resources to meet the assigned responsibilities
  3. Monitoring and assessment of individual performance
  4. Appropriate consequences for taking or failing to take action
  5. Consistent and unbiased application of accountability standards


 It should be noted that accountability is not necessarily the same as blame.  Often, organizations seek to assign accountability only when they are looking for someone to blame.

How can you distinguish the difference?

In most organizations, much of what is done requires a group effort where no one person is completely responsible for a particular action or decision.  In addition, accountability goes hand-in-hand with authority and responsibility.  This means that, generally, those with the greatest accountability will be highest up in the organization.  Therefore, if you are truly attempting to identify who is accountable, the result will be a list of people that includes individuals at the top, as well as the bottom, of the org chart.  If you are seeking to assign blame, usually finding a single “fall guy” will be sufficient.


Top managers need to keep in mind the sign President Truman kept on his desk to remind him who was accountable.  It read:  “The BUCK STOPS here!”


© ENLAR® Compliance Services, Inc. (2007)

Category: FAQ, OHSAS 18001:2007 Revisions

Comments (5)

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  1. Luis Emilio says:

    Hello, I writing from Brazil. Congratulations for your blog!

    Please, it’s very difficult to me understand this concept and find a word to translate accountability for Portuguese (of course I don´t expect that you have a translation…). Can you give me more examples, please?

    An example: Workers have to use personal protective equipment for a particular activity. It’s their responsibility, right? Who is accountable in this case? Would it be a person who has a function to assure that all workers use the equipment (here in Brazil we called Safety Technical /Engineer, role required by law)? When an accident happens, this person is called to ask about the accident. Is that accountability???

    One more question: in your text, to hold/held is used as take arrest because a fail?

  2. Thea says:

    I understand your problem. The translation of English words into other languages can create difficulties.

    Your example is a good one.

    If an organization decides that personal protective equipment (PPE) is an appropriate control measure for reducing the risk associated with a particular hazard then it is important that the appropriate PPE is used and used properly. This is particularly important with respirators where improper use can lead to serious injury or even death.

    Within an organization, activities do not occur (the wearing of PPE) unless individuals take action. The action each person takes should specifically relate to what he or she can do (his or her authority), what he or she must do (his or her responsibilities) and what he or she must ensure is done (either personally or by some other person). The organization should hold a person accountable when there is some result (good or bad) that occurs because that individual takes, or fails to take, a particular action for which they have both the authority and the responsibility.

    For your PPE example –

    Workers are responsible for wearing PPE that is appropriate for their particular work tasks. Typically, they do not select a particular type of PPE but are told what type must be used and when. They should be accountable (i.e. subject to being disciplined) if they do not wear the selected type of PPE when it is required. For example, some firefighting organizations have “zero-tolerance” policies that state that any worker who is seen fighting a fire without wearing PPE will be immediately fired. That is accountability.

    Workers are not the only ones who should have responsibilities and accountabilities for PPE.

    Someone within the organization (e.g. a safety engineer) has the responsibility for selecting the type of PPE that is appropriate to the work activities to be performed (e.g. the right respirator). This individual should be held accountable if the wrong PPE is selected. Individual workers should not be disciplined (held accountable) for wearing the wrong PPE if they have no authority or responsibility for the selection.

    Others within the organization, typically supervisors, are responsible for enforcing work rules (e.g. assuring that workers who report to them wear appropriate PPE). They should also be held accountable if they do not act on their responsibilities (i.e. they observe workers who are not using PPE and allow them to continue working). In this case, the individual that should be subject to a negative outcome (a poor performance review, being fired) is the supervisor. Similarly, if the individual the supervisor reports to knows that this supervisor is not enforcing work rules, he or she should be held accountable.

    It is a significant problem when organizations separate responsibilities and accountabilities. Some organizations do not hold individuals accountable (subject them to discipline) for their OH&S responsibilities (e.g. supervisors suffer no negative consequences for not enforcing OH&S related work rules).

    The converse is also a problem – organizations who hold individuals accountable for activities when they do not have the authority or responsibility to take a particular action. Typically, a safety technician/engineer would not have the authority to fire particular individuals for work rule violations. Therefore, he or she would not be the appropriate person to hold accountable if an injury occurred because an individual was not wearing PPE while performing a particular task.

  3. […] a previous blog, I outlined the differencies between responsibilities, accountabilities and […]

  4. RLDaily says:

    You act on responsibilities and you are answerable due to accountability.

    Responsibility can be delegated but accountability cannot

  5. Avelino says:

    Hello everyone!

    Luis, the best traslation, we find, is not a word, but an expression : “Prestação de contas”