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Where Do Your Safety Rules Come From?

April 29, 2015

safety-rulesPlease answer the following question as honestly as possible: Which of the following best describes your organization’s safety policies?

  1. Based on relevant data and current best practices
  2. Only meets the minimum OSHA (or MSHA) requirements
  3. Long, detailed, and complicated
  4. Most are put in place only because of a specific injury or significant event that occurred

Congratulations to those of you who would answer “A.” Hopefully, that is truly the case at your company!

If you answered B or C, you are certainly not alone. I talk to many employees and leaders every year who are on one extreme versus the other: it’s either the bare minimum, or it’s over the top. This is often a function of company size, but there are many exceptions. I have worked with several organizations that have 250 employees or less who have very ambitious and preventative safety policies.

Now, for those of you who answered “D,” why do you think that is?

I have recently been working with a global company in the oil & gas industry, and have heard frustrations from many hourly employees about safety policies that seem over the top – doing JSAs whenever they need a ladder, wearing seatbelts on golf carts, etc. I can certainly understand where those frustrations come from – these policies can easily add a lot of time to what would normally be a very simple and routine task.

But what was really interesting was to hear how many people repeatedly said: “We only have that rule because some guy did something dumb, and now we all have to pay the price.” They very much shared the opinion that the whole site is now subject to unnecessary safety rules simply because someone made a dumb decision years ago, and violated a rule that 99% of their co-workers would never break.

While they understood the rationale and intent of the policies, these employees clearly felt like the old policies were sufficient and that the overwhelming majority of employees were good, safe working folks who wanted to do the right thing. They also felt like many of the policies came from “way above in corporate” so there was little they could do in terms of feedback or input.

It’s a tricky issue and I see both sides of the equation. I empathize with employees in this situation, but I can also see why their corporate leadership would want to take these sorts of steps to prevent similar incidents from happening again. In fairness to them, they had experienced some significant incidents related to falls and chemical exposures (due to very poor decisions and unnecessary risks that did not necessarily violate any existing rules at the time) which led to lost time injuries, and this was probably an earnest effort to prevent these from ever happening again.

Regardless, the end result is now a perception that company safety policies are simply a highly reactive knee-jerk reaction to behavioral outliers, rather than the result of preventive, well-thought measures that are based on trends and best practices in the industry. And this creates a problem – it diminishes credibility in management and builds the perception that safety policies are only for people who lack common sense or have a total disregard for safety. And as we all know, unfortunately, perception often turns into reality.

So, when we think about our safety policies, it’s important to learn from previous mistakes – we must implement preventive measures in response to unsafe behaviors or decisions in the workplace. However, it is critical that we don’t solely rely on these types of examples as the basis for our safety policies. Ideally, we can be more proactive and balanced in setting our safety policies and rely on reliable trends, representative data samples, and best practices from various industries rather than simply reacting to the latest injury or near miss.

I encourage you to please share your response to my question above, and give your thoughts and opinions on it.

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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.