Working to Rules

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Issues/TrendsLeave a Comment

the human oil in the process engine

People are not risk averse enough for our liking.” So said Joe Smith, Group Health and Safety Manager at Thomas Armstrong (Holdings) Ltd. That’s an attention grabbing comment.

Simon Dean responded in a comment that “We need to highlight all the reasons for following the safety rules rather than what will happen if you don’t”.

More carrot, less stick?

Joe asserts in his piece that, “the more they break the rules and aren’t involved in [an accident – Ed] the more it reinforces the notion that situations are safer than they actually are”.

More rules then? 2020 has been the Year of the Rule and doubtless we all have an opinion on that – likely divided into one of two camps.

Of course, the world of OHS has been grappling with the efficacy of emergent behaviour for almost a decade now through Safety Differently and its fight with zero harm and more broadly in how best to move on from the health and safety wild west of the seventies and earlier decades. The emergence of technology and standards have paved the way for SHE management systems and a culture of health and safety.

All of which may have seen us, in 2019/20, break through the statistical barrier that is UK worker fatality rates. There are lots of ifs and buts around those provisional figures but the potential is there for a real breakthrough year.

So where are we now in terms of more rules or less rules? Before looking at that, one resource has emerged this year that suggests a maturity (maybe an excellence?) within the OHS industry. It’s the One Percent Safer Book which is an anthology of ideas targeted at making your business 1% safer through the power of marginal gains. All Rugby fans will remember Sir Clive Woodward explaining that England won the 2003 World Cup not by doing one thing 100% better than other teams but by doing one hundred things 1% better. Definitely worth a look.

Back to rules. Do they really help? Our research on whether more trusting societies are safer ran causality through the axis of rules and showed that high trust = less rules = more safety. Hardly scientific but interesting all the same. We’ve also previously discussed The Peltzman Effect which states that, “where safety measures are mandated people will engage in more risky behaviour”. There’s certainly strong anecdotal evidence that an increase in rules leads to less safe behaviour.

Is that mirrored in other walks of life? Does adding more rules to enforce a certain behaviour actually produce the opposite effect? We are human after all with the aptitude for our own cognitive decision-making – “the decision-making process regarded as a continuous process integrated in the interaction with the environment”. What will happen if we make that environment so rule based we can’t think for ourselves?

This is exactly what happened at the launch of LHR T5 where the baggage handlers had a dispute with management around a myriad of new working rules and practices. The dispute was ‘resolved’ by the workers agreeing to work to those rules and most of us will remember the chaos that ensued. Management had not recognised the human oil that makes the ‘process’ engine run smoothly.

If you’re reading this with a clear, definitive position in one camp rather than another, then we’ll leave you with something from the One Percent Safer Book, “We can’t fix everything all at once. But we can do something right now. Just do something. Just one thing”.

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