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How Gray Areas in Your Safety Policies Affect Employee Safety

March 22, 2017

safety-policies.pngDoes your company have any safety policies or procedures that are somewhat unclear or ambiguous? Are there certain safety rules that are interpreted somewhat differently depending on the situation, or who you talk to? If so, you probably have some safety policies that have “gray areas” and you’re certainly not alone. Many safety professionals and employees I talk to in different industries deal with this and it can be challenging.

Gray areas in safety policies can emerge over time for various reasons, including:

  • Adjustment periods during which employees are still transitioning to new safety policies

  • Changes in equipment or machinery where the former safety procedures appear to be adequate to most employees

  • Non-routine work for which there is not an existing set of procedures or controls

  • Inconsistency in how or when safety policies are enforced

While there will always be certain policies that require additional clarification or better enforcement, having safety policy gray areas too frequently or in too many areas of your operations can greatly increase employees’ exposure to risk. Gray areas lend themselves to subjective interpretation because they are vague and lack sufficient detail or are not predictably enforced, leading employees to apply them as they see fit, and using their own best judgment of when a rule should or should not be adhered to.

This is especially important given that individuals vary widely in terms of how they perceive and interpret “rules.” People that are highly rule bound prefer to:

  • Work within well-defined parameters

  • Know what they can and cannot do

  • Know the correct way to do a task 

  • Know what happens if they fail to adhere to that process

We often call this this type of person a “stickler for the rules” or someone who likes things done “a certain way.” However, there are people on the other side of the spectrum, who tend to:

  • See rules as basic guidelines

  • Feel restrained by policies and checklists

  • Prefer the freedom to use their own judgment and abilities when doing things

These people tend to be flexible, adaptable and innovative. So, being more or less rule-bound in your personality is not inherently a good or a bad thing. There are certainly times when it’s important to follow a checklist step-by-step and there are times where we must be flexible and rely on our intuition. It just depends on what the task is, what is the risk associated with the task, and the reason for why the rule exists.

What is important to know is that any gray area in a safety policy will be perceived by people differently depending on how rule-bound they are. Rule-bound individuals will naturally err on the side of caution and see a clear rule in an otherwise vague or ambiguous policy. Those who are not rule-bound will tend to perceive the ambiguity as “open to interpretation” and do what they think is best.

Here are a few examples:

  • Let’s say your company policy requires the use of work gloves at all times, and cut-resistant gloves when one is using any cutting tools. Some employees will always have their cut resistant gloves on when cutting while others will feel that any work glove is sufficient.

  • Let’s say you require employees to wear a safety harness and tie off to a “safe” anchor point while working at heights, as required by OSHA. If there is not a place to safely tie off to, a very rule-bound employee is more likely to perceive that they cannot proceed, and may get input from someone to reassess the situation before doing anything else. Conversely, a less rule-bound employee may see a less-than-safe anchor point, such as a wire rope or a conduit, and tie off to that object and feel that they are still adhering to the safety policy because…at least they’re tied off to something. To them, they are still following the rule, even though you may not see it quite the same way.

Said another way, the more gray areas you have in your safety policies, the more important it is to understand how each employee is hard-wired to perceive rules. Will they naturally treat it as a hard-and-fast rule, or will they take the freedom to interpret it as they see fit? The same goes for your supervisors – how do they interpret and enforce safety rules? Their own psychological disposition towards rules can have even larger effects on employee safety because they impact how all employees adhere to safety procedures, set the tone for which rules are enforced and when they are enforced. As we often hear, the leader sets the tone. So, ask yourself, what tone are your leaders setting when it comes to interpretation of safety policies?

It is important to consider the Rules factor of our own SafetyDNA, as well as that of our employees and leaders. How we feel about rules can have a big impact on how we respond to those rules. As many of my safety professional contacts often say, “Rules are written in blood.” So, when there are policies in place that are intended to keep us safe from electricity, falls, deadly gases or other major hazards, we need to recognize how our psychological traits are constantly working to influence our adherence to those life-saving rules. Our lives and the lives of our co-workers depend on it.

safety training and development

Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Corporate 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.