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3 Ways to Save Your Company's Life Saving Rules

December 3, 2014

186188474Many companies I work with have some set of critical safety policies that are essentially deal breakers and must be adhered to. These are usually called something like “Rules to Live By,” “Life Saving Rules,” or “Fatal Four” and they are based on the high risk of injury or fatality that is associated with certain critical activities.

Common rules to live by focus on things like Lock Out/Tag Out, fall protection, obtaining required permits before doing certain tasks, or drug and alcohol use. Obviously they can vary based on the industry and the organization, but they all accomplish an important goal which is to communicate a very clear, concise, and specific set of policies that can keep people safe from the most dangerous hazards on the job. This puts everyone on the same page about the biggest exposures and how to avoid them.

So, what happens once you establish your Life Saving Rules, after you display them in your facility on big, shiny posters, and communicate them to everyone in all your meetings and emails? Unfortunately for a lot of companies, this is where it stops. The message is out there and leadership feels like they “have done their job” by telling everyone what these super important rules are. I recall one example where a company had just sent out a big communication about inspections and permits for all the vehicles on their fleet. This was one of the eight essential rules they were really focusing on in order to reduce their high TRIR and frequent DOT violation count. Just days after this communication effort, they had another incident involving, sure enough - two expired permits and a mechanical failure that was due to an incomplete inspection.

What was most surprising to me was the response from the Head of HSE, who basically reacted with: “But I sent out an email! Didn’t they see the posters?!” He was so frustrated because he felt he had done all he could do in order to make sure that people adhered to this essential rule. It simply did not dawn on him that posting the rules and emailing supervisors about them was only the beginning of what was required. Why? Because simply “telling” people is not enough. Whether it’s verbally, in posters, pocket cards, or videos, it must go beyond conveying the information. Call it “hearts and minds” or whatever you wish, but ultimately it must become second nature to employees - part of their thought process, part of their personal values and ultimately their lifestyle.

But how can an organization make this happen? How can they make their Life Saving Rules truly sustainable? There are many success stories out there from companies with world class safety performance, and the common themes we hear are that you need constant communication at all levels, commitment from senior management, and the incorporation of your essential rules into everyday work activities such as safety briefings and tailgate/toolbox meetings. These are tried and true techniques, but I believe there is still much more that organizations can do to really make their Live Saving Rules sustainable for the long haul. How? By also looking at the role of the individual and making it personally meaningful to each and every employee. There are many things you can do to accomplish this, but here are three in particular that can go a long way towards making it more personal:

  1. Leaders must share why Life Saving Rules are important to them as a person. All too often, Supervisors and Managers are well intentioned, but they communicate the rules to their team members in a very detached and impersonal manner. They sound like they’re just reading stuff off a list and “checking the box” to make sure they told people the rules. And if they lack decent speaking skills or presentation ability, it can often turn into a snooze fest, particularly when everyone’s already heard these rules many times before. But when leaders can figure out how to make it personal, that’s when the light comes on for people and when the engagement begins. It can be anything – something the leader noticed last week, a story of an injury or near miss to someone they knew well, or simply having a short and sweet personal phrase or message that people can directly tie to them as a person. By helping and developing our first line leaders to do this in a way that is simple and natural to them based on their own personality, we can help them to make Life Saving Rules really come to life for employees.

  1. Link Life Saving Rules to each employee’s safety blind spots. Every individual has some strengths when it comes to safety – they might be a fast learner, a natural rule follower, or very risk averse. But everyone has some sort of blind spot or characteristic in their SafetyDNATM that can increase their personal exposure in certain situations. One employee might have no problem at all consistently doing LO/TO on energized equipment because s/he is a naturally rule-bound. So following all this Life Saving Rule is not the problem. The problem for this employee might be failing to notice that they are walking directly under a suspended load (which is a common Life Saving Rule, often coupled with safe lifting procedures). Depending on an employee’s personal safety profile, one Life Saving Rule can be very easy for him/her to adhere to, while another rule can be much harder. But if the individual knew ahead of time about their blind spots, and their supervisor could constructively reinforce behaviors related to this exposure, then we can get the most out of the Life Saving Rule for that individual.

  1. Consider differences in leadership style and how they influence enforcement of Life Saving Rules. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, rules must be enforced if we expect people to follow them consistently. Consequences must be applied when they are violated, and with Life Saving Rules, these often result in termination. That’s fine, but leaders must be objective, fair and consistent in applying these consequences. When exceptions are made, it hurts the integrity of the rules program. Feedback on behaviors related to Life Saving Rules should also be given in a constructive manner that shows genuine concern for the employee’s safety, rather than just looking for people messing up. But depending on a supervisor’s leadership style, s/he may struggle with some, or all, of these behaviors. Leaders with a very Transactional style, for example, are comfortable correcting behavior and disciplining employees, but they can come across as having little empathy or concern for employees. In contrast, those with a Relational style care about having good relationships, so they often avoid conflict and ignore at-risk behaviors, hoping the employee won’t do it again next time they see them. Clearly, leadership style and skills can influence how you enforce Life Saving Rules. Organizations can address these differences in leadership skills by using validated safety leadership assessments to identify skill gaps and then using that information to proactively coach leaders on behaviors that help them to reinforce Life Saving Rules in a more effective manner.

These are three ways in which we can bring the personal aspect closer to Life Saving Rules. Can you think of any other ways we can make Life Saving Rules more personal for people in your organization?

hiring safe employees

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.