“Our culture peculiarly honors the act of blaming, which it takes as the sign of virtue and intellect.” –Lionel Trilling

Although the phrase, “blaming the victim,” has been around for almost 50 years, it has received renewed attention, especially regarding sexual assault and bullying. Widely condemned, victim blaming is the tendency to blame victims and hold them responsible for the wrongs they suffer.

The language of victim blaming is often subtle, but its effect is corrosive and whether unintended or not, deflects attention away from the victimization. For those of us interested in workplace safety in general and process safety in specific, it is disheartening to see how much the language of incident safety investigations mirrors the language of victim blaming in cases of sexual assault and bullying.

The Language of Victim Blaming

Victims can expect to hear the following offered as rationale for their victimization:

– He deserves it,

– She should have expected it, given the situation she put herself into,

– He caused it or brought it on himself,

– She should have known better,

– He didn’t say no, didn’t fight back,

– She is too sensitive,

– He is exaggerating, or made it up completely, and

– Others don’t deserve to suffer because of this one incident.

It doesn’t take much imagination at all to see how an incident investigation team can adapt any of these phrases to the language of incident safety investigations.

You Only Have Yourself to Blame

There are too many authors and commentators to count that have offered some version of the sentiment, “You only have yourself to blame.” The worst example of this I ever encountered was during a discussion of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Someone, in all sincerity, offered this thought about the 11 workers who died and the 17 injured workers: “Well, they were working on an oil rig. What did they expect?”

Not everyone is so bold as to say this out loud, but for everyone who says it, there are probably dozens more who think it and hundreds more who subconsciously sense that it must be true. It is a common enough idea that there is even an accepted legal defense known as “assumption of risk”. It argues that a victim is responsible for her own harm if she engages in a dangerous activity. For instance, working in a chemical plant.

When this idea is sitting in the back of an investigator’s mind, it becomes a lens through which they view everything they see, tainting their investigation.

Why We Blame the Victim

When someone is hurt or killed on the job, we blame them because we’ve been told for decades that all incidents are preventable. When an incident results in someone hurt or killed on the job, that is an incident that was not prevented. In other words, it is an incident someone did not prevent, so clearly someone must be to blame. We tell people they wouldn’t have been hurt if they hadn’t been doing what they were doing, how they were doing it, even if it is unlikely that we would criticize them for doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way when there is no harmful outcome. It’s easy to see things as inevitable in hindsight by scrutinizing the victim’s behavior, but the reality is that their behavior was probably no different from behavior we accept as routine.

We also blame victims of more general problems because we want to think solving these problems is as simple as getting workers to behave differently. So even safety professionals, who should know better, engage in victim blaming. Behaviors are driven by the system, with all its competing priorities, so demanding changes in behavior without addressing the system is nothing more than victim blaming.

The Ideal Victim

Nils Christie, a Norwegian criminologist, describes the “ideal victim” as someone in unavoidable circumstances that put the individual at a disadvantage…one who resists their attacker and exercises caution in risky situations.” Otherwise, they are not real victims.  An ideal victim also requires an ideal perpetrator. The ideal perpetrator “does not know their victim and is a completely non-sympathetic figure…an individual lacking morals.” Someone who knows the victim and is morally ordinary—essentially everyone involved in an industrial incident—cannot be an ideal perpetrator.

In the absence of an ideal victim, we feel that there is license for victim-blaming. Rarely is the victim of a process safety incident an ideal victim.

Avoiding Temptation

There is a long history of blaming the victim during an incident safety investigation. It is a very tempting approach. It absolves the investigation of any need to change the system, to make similar incidents less likely in the future. When the blame for an incident can be fixed to the victim, the recommendations become easy: more training, or at worse, fire the victim.

The challenge for all of us is to recognize this temptation and avoid it. In general, fixing blame should not be the objective of an incident safety investigation. Specifically, we should avoid blaming the victim. The real objective of an incident safety investigation is to understand why an incident happened so we can identify changes to the system that make reoccurrences of the incident less likely. Let’s keep our eye on our real objective.