Witch hunts and scapegoats: an investigation into the impact of personal liability concerns on engineers’ reporting of risks

Sarah Maslen, Jan Hayes, Janice Wong, Christina Scott-Young

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Previous research in the health, aviation, and construction sectors, principally with operators, has found that individual blame for small failures discourages hazard and incident reporting and so adversely impacts disaster prevention. This finding has widely influenced practice in organizations relying on engineers, although the extent to which it applies to this work domain has been subject to limited empirical research. Based on a survey of Australian engineers (n = 275), in this article we examine how personal legal liability considerations impact on hazard and incident reporting and the less formal practice of telling stories about events. We found that 48% of engineers are more likely to report hazards as a result of their personal liability concerns. Only 5% indicated that they were less likely to report hazards. We suggest that these findings are due to the nature of engineering work, where decision-making is distributed across time, place, and people. In this context, reporting and informally telling of risks and hazards to others in the organization is understood to transfer responsibility for remedial action and so limit one’s personal liability. While there is some trepidation among engineers as to whether this strategy, among other work practices, will be sufficient protection, they see this as acting professionally and as such the ‘right’ thing to do.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
Number of pages14
JournalEnvironment Systems and Decisions
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 31 Jan 2020


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