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Why We Violate the Rules

Why do people – including safety professionals themselves – repeatedly ignore safety protocols? Let’ think through why less is more in safety, especially if the problem is the rule rather than the person.

Posted: May 8, 2011

Too often rules are the organization's attempt to impose order on chaos; of creating a response to every specific contingency. In the world of safety, organizations may find that when it comes to rules, less is more. When it comes to violations, it's sometimes more appropriate to blame the rule rather than the worker.

Safety involves rules. A major source of frustration among those responsible for safety lies in the fact that people often get hurt after repeatedly ignoring safety protocols. Safety professionals bemoan that “if these idiots would just follow the rules, they wouldn’t get hurt.” Yet these very same safety professionals are likely to routinely and willfully violate safety rules themselves.

I’m sure that statement just raised some eyebrows, and maybe even a hackle or two, but consider your own morning commute. The traffic code is basically a collection of safety regulations. Many of us willfully disregard these rules. How can we call for stricter enforcement of safety rules in the workplace while disregarding safety rules intended to get us to and from the workplace safely? And given that, statistically speaking, more of us are likely to die in a traffic accident than a workplace accident, the question of why we ignore safety rules should be a grave concern to all of us.

In many cases, when we find someone in violation of the rules, they simply tell us that they didn’t know. In some cases this is true, but in others it is a convenient excuse. While it is unjust to punish someone who doesn’t know that they have violated a rule, that doesn’t mean that an organization should excuse this behavior. Instead of punishing the worker, the organization should take a hard look at the process that allows a worker to be assigned a job without knowing all of the appropriate safety rules.

Sometimes we violate a rule simply because something unusual distracts us from our usual routine. This can be a nonstandard situation, such as construction going on inside the machine shop, or something in our personal lives that is bothering us. Companies have seen a correlation between spikes in calls to employee assistance lines regarding personal problems outside the workplaces and increases in injuries in the workplace. The question organizations need to ask themselves is not “what can we do to keep people from being distracted?” but rather “how can we protect workers who inevitably become distracted?”

Sometimes we violate the rules because doing so results in a benefit that far exceeds the consequences that we risk if we are caught and punished. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s continue with the traffic metaphor, because I believe it is an example to which we can all relate.

If I speed I can cut as much as 20 percent off my morning commute. If I get caught I’ll pay a fine and my insurance rates may increase. But there are a lot of “ifs” before I get to that outcome: If I get pulled over, and if I get a ticket, and if I don’t contest it, and if I lose in court, etc. For those who speed, the probability of a negative outcome seems remote, while the likelihood of reward almost certain. So in terms of workplace safety, a primary driver of willful violation is that the reward is great (often the safety protocol is an inconvenience and can be time-consuming). In general, people violate work rules many, many times without suffering injuries – and the payoff is often being treated as a hero for getting the job done quickly.

There are a lot of workplace rules that are anachronistic. They were put on the books at a time when they seemed necessary, but have since outlived their usefulness. In other cases, standards are still required for very good reasons, but those reasons are never adequately explained to the worker. In still other cases, the rule is explained to the worker in a way that makes it seem as though the rule isn’t really in the worker’s best interest.

For example, I’ve heard motorcyclists claim that a helmet is actually likely to increase the severity of an injury or, conversely, that the helmet wouldn’t make much of a difference in the event of a serious accident. While research doesn’t support that belief, those who ascribe to these notions were told this information by someone. I’ve also been told by veteran workers that they don’t believe in wearing steel-toed shoes because the steel plate may make an injury worse. Both claims are specious arguments, but the beliefs persist, so the rules do not seem to make sense.

Often people will seek out information that supports what they already believe and ignore the information that refutes it. But an even more common problem is that some rules, while designed to make compliance easier, really don’t have a lot to do with an actual requirement. I know of workplaces that have wall-to-wall eye protection requirements even though the law specifically requires eye protection on only a handful of operations. That rule is in place because enforcing the requirement for a handful of workers would be onerous. Workers in those facilities can become skeptical of all work rules when they discover that many requirements are in place solely to make enforcement easier.

Generally speaking, people need to know why a rule is important. Rules that are poorly communicated frequently lack this critical component. If one doesn’t understand the consequences from which a rule is intended to shield them, one is highly likely to ignore the rule when it is convenient to do so. People need to believe that the rules are a reasonable response to a real and serious danger. If we cannot provide that reason, we should reexamine the need for the rule.

Have you ever jay-walked? Why did you do it? In many cases, it simply does not seem to make sense to wait for the crosswalk signal to change when there clearly isn’t a car in sight for miles. So people jay-walk. Even someone who understands the rule, values the rule, and generally adheres to the rule may ignore it if the rule seems unnecessary given the current situation. Unfortunately, many workers are killed because they misjudged the safety of the situation and erroneously decided that a rule was temporarily unnecessary.

Too many workplaces have adopted a safety-overkill philosophy. For example, “zero tolerance” for injuries has created some workplaces that have safety rules that outlaw coffee mugs, where coffee can only be consumed in containers with spill-proof lids. The result is that hazards which are very remote and/or carry very insignificant consequences wind up being treated with the same importance as those hazards that are more likely to kill or seriously injure us.

Too often rules are the organization’s attempt to impose order on chaos; of creating a response to every specific contingency. In the world of safety, organizations may find that when it comes to rules, less is more. When it comes to violations, it’s sometimes more appropriate to blame the rule rather than the worker.

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