Behind Every Safety Rule Is A Story

by Dave Collins on April 13, 2017

in Safety Legislation,Simplistic Safety



Behind Every Safety Rule Is A Story (usually only 1)

unquantifiable hazardsA friend of mine recently organised a holiday apartment through Airbnb. They sent him a short list of house rules and the last one was: “Please be considerate and only use oil based lubricant” – I immediately started to imagine what had happened for that rule to make the list, out of all the other rules they could have listed? ……..did the new driveway get stained or did the frying pan get burnt? I’ve challenged him to find out but not sure if I will be able to share the answer.

We’ve all seen silly warnings like the one on irons that say “do not iron clothes whilst wearing” or on children’s clothes that say “remove child before washing” – there are plenty more on our This Toaster Is Hot Page. I don’t think these rules are just the result of a sense of humour or vivid imagination!

We’ve all encountered a list of safety rules at work. Some make sense but some make no sense at all and seem quite stupid – like wearing hard hat, steel caps, hi viz and gloves to take a bus trip around a site??? Do we or should we question these rules or just blindly accept them and put our faith in the creator?

Next time you see or are given a new rule, I challenge you to ask: “What’s the story”?

I recently visited a major construction site and was asked to sign in, below half a page of very fine print, at 3 different work areas. I asked why? and nobody could tell me. I wasn’t asked to sign out again so does this mean they are still looking for me? The good thing is that Safety had created 3 additional full-time jobs with this process! For 20 years I’ve purposefully avoided signing out of visitor books and I’ve never had a phone call!!!!

Whilst I originally felt like writing an article about rules, all I can think of now are questions rather than answers”

  • imageAre DON’T DO rules (commonly found in safety) more effective than rules telling us what we CAN do? I certainly find the signs in my state telling me where I can do a U-turn are much more acceptable than in other states where they tell you where you can’t do one?
  • Are we more likely to follow rules if we know and understand the story behind them?
  • Are most rules implemented in response to a one off situation or a “knee-jerk” and would sometimes doing nothing be a better option?
  • Do some rules actually give us ideas or challenges?
  • What about the “unwritten” or culturally based rules?
  • What do our rules say about us, our leadership and our agenda?
  • Once we make a rule how do we revoke it if it isn’t working?
  • How do we know when we have enough or too many rules? When do we stop? Do we just keep adding/changing every time something happens?
  • If we need so many rules then how can there be any such thing as common sense?
  • Are rules mainly aimed at the people who will ignore them anyway and may simply end up offending those who don’t need them?
  • Do we ever consider the by-products of the rules we make and the people they may harm? see:  Unintended Consequences of Over Regulation
  • Does establishing priorities like “Golden Safety Rules”  and zero tolerance of their breaches really help a safety culture as claimed or does this lead to over confidence and lack of thinking – it is very possible to still get badly injured by following these rules?
  • Can a great rule one minute be just as easily be a burden in the next?
  • Do we only appreciate rules when they hinder or control somebody else and despise them when they directly affect us?
  • Should rules serve people or should people be slaves to rules?
  • When is it OK to break them?
  • What is the best way to communicate them? How do we know people know and understand them?
  • Do the same rules apply to everybody? If not, why not?
  • Are we prepared to enforce them? How? More rules?
  • When a rule seems crazy or over the top are we tempted to just ignore it? See Risk Homeostasis

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  • Bernard Corden

    One of the most clever adaptions I can recall was during the intense competition between British Airways and Freddy Laker for bums on seats on the Heathrow to NYC transatlantic route.
    A BA advertising hoarding close to Heathrow proudly proclaimed ” Breakfast In London; Dinner in New York”
    A graffiti artist added ” Luggage in Bangkok”

  • Bernard Corden

    I can recall a case on a council tip in the southern suburbs of Sydney many years ago. The tip contained a small water treatment plant for neutralising spent acid from discarded car batteries. During the weekend two juveniles were scavenging on the tip and scaled the water treatment plant perimeter fence. Dosing chemicals included a 20 litre container of caustic soda solution, which was labelled ” Danger – Caustic Soda”
    It was a hot summer day and one of the children decided to drink the contents and the consequences were quite severe.
    The local council were prosecuted and the sign to a young child could have denoted that it was a soft drink. A council engineer replied ….”what does a 3 metre high fence with razor wire mean yo a young child”.
    The legal representative for the family replied……” A challenge”

  • Bernard Corden

    Golden, platinum, cardinal or life-saving rules (Is there a hierarchy?) are often reinforced during site inductions, toolbox talks and prestart meetings and it is worth reiterating the great dissenting philosopher, William Hazlitt……….”Rules and models destroy genius and art” Breaches of these fatwas can often result in instant dismissal, which immediately raises the concerns of Cicero……”More laws, less justice”

    Many toolbox talks and prestart meetings have degenerated into a liturgy of ontological witchcraft supplemented by indoctrinating Znamenny chants from project managers with paramilitary safety zealots proselytising and beseeching employees to behave safely. This is normally complemented by a regime of nostrums, which includes calisthenics following a fiat to reduce manual handling injuries and musculoskeletal disorders. If only the shareholders could see what is happening.

    Maybe some entrepreneurial organisational development consultant will reach out and recommend the introduction of tranquil Celtic background music from Enya, complete with wind chimes and patchouli oil incense burners, to eliminate psychosocial risks on construction projects and fulfil this unrelenting pursuit of zero harm.

    • If you have platinum rules then you obviously care more about Safety than an organisation that only has gold! I think some on construction sites may already try to ease the pain of Safety using a variety of therapeutic means

  • Rob Long

    Thanks for the post Dave. Dare I say it but just putting a rule out there is not a simple thing. Any message involves a medium, a sender and a receiver, each with its own filter and bias. Any message (rule/goal) is also a semiotic and has its own semiosis, sometimes more than is intended by the person who constructs the message/sign. Even simple messages like stop! sometimes don’t really mean stop but rather pause and keep going or, in some cryptic ways stop can mean don’t stop! It would be would be naive to think that messages and signs are simple and straight forward. Just because a sign means something to me doesn’t mean that has the same meaning for you, there is no common sense rather, we often teach people what signs mean and still people don’t interpret them well.
    Dare I say, in the world of dumb down and common sense signs seem to be given an absurd power and hence the abundance of meaninglessness out there by well intended people who have no idea about the social psychology of signs. For example today (Good Friday) the sign of the cross to some means a glazed fruit bun of geometric design and for others it means falling down on their knees in adoration and prayer. For others it means non-sense and for many it means faith.
    So all signs and messages carry subjectivity and interpretation and are not ‘obvious’ nor invoke ‘common sense’.
    I saw a sign in Brisbane last week at a train station that virtually encouraged adolescents to jump on the track but for others it wasn’t an invite but a warning. Similarly, that is why the populist Dumb Ways to Die animation doesn’t work, the creators have not thought about the social psychology of signs, or social psychology of goals. And even then, when a sign does work we also have the problem of desensitization so that in time, we don’t see signs. ‘Flooding’ is one of the huge problems in safety and drives ‘tick and flick’, the opposite of a risk assessment.
    One thing is for sure, the more dumb and simplistic Safety approaches the problem, the worse things become. Also in Brisbane last week and as part of a presentation showed some photos of an event I had witnessed and I took the photos. I then explained what I saw and nature of the photos and then a safety engineer in the room disputed my interpretation of events because it didn’t match his paradigm! So, even an eyewitness account is meaningless to a safety engineer who can’t accept challenging evidence to their rigid paradigm. His denial of the unconscious was also astounding.
    The trouble is, once a sign does up and sunk cost is in place regardless of the ineffectiveness of the sign, it is not likely to come down, more likely a new sign will go up beside it to say read the sign! Amazing how a cert 4 in WHS makes one an expert in semiotics and the unconscious.

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