Shifting Risk to the Frontline: Case Studies in Different Contract Working Environments
An extensive body of safety literature and research discusses the integral role of rules and procedures in managing workplace hazards, ensuring worker safety, and safeguarding the environment. Nevertheless, organizational accidents and workplace injuries continue to occur, and individual employees often bear the brunt of responsibility. This paper examines how risk becomes shifted to individuals at the bottom of supply chains, focusing on two different groups of contract workers. Specifically, it draws on case studies conducted in Australia – one on civil contractors working around hazardous infrastructure and one on athletes who are subject to anti-doping requirements. A comparison of the two cases and their distinctive elements illuminates the ways in which structural pressures, organizational dynamics, and context-specific conditions influence the risks shouldered by individuals. Our analysis shows that, in both cases, adverse outcomes are widely seen as the responsibility of contract workers, prompting other actors to judge them as blameworthy. In doing so, risk in various forms (e.g. safety, financial, reputational) becomes shifted onto workers who are constrained by contracts and away from away from higher level actors and organizations that are generally in more powerful positions than frontline workers. This finding suggests that the burden of accountability and potentially liability is borne primarily by frontline workers. Because of this focus, it is easy to lose sight of organizational and structural conditions that contribute to the risks revealed at the individual level. Through an analysis of 57 interviews across both sectors, complemented by participant observations and a media review, this paper underscores the importance of critically considering not only individual worker actions, but also how regulation can support the diversion of risk, responsibility, and liability onto frontline workers.