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Safety Leadership: Rules and Safety

Safety Leadership Rules and Safety

This is a continuation of our blog series on Safety Leadership. In the last article, we explained Avatar’s five-step risk management model and said most of our work is at the fourth level: HUMAN FACTORS. Managing risk at this level is all about influencing employees to behave in safe ways. We mentioned that you can educate, train and motivate your employees. But where do rules come in? Can we use rules to influence employee behavior?

Rules Were Made to Be Broken

Rules are a formalized declaration of “what thou must do,” or “what thou must not do.” Rules are almost always written. It began when Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments - a written set of rules for everyone to follow. Yet several thousand years later, people routinely break every one of them.

Rules usually include a predefined punishment that you can expect to suffer if you break the rule. In a business setting, important rules usually end with a threatening statement, “…up to and including discharge.”

We have rules for living in a civilized society. They’re called laws. But just like the commandments, people also break these rules every day. Last week, I was visiting a trucking company and when I asked about their safety program, they proudly showed me their rulebook as evidence of a good safety program. When I pressed them, they had to admit some of their people break some of their rules.

Do Rules Lead to Better Safety Results?

Rules are an attempt to control behavior, but unfortunately, rules don’t always work. I was a bad kid. I broke a lot of rules and I was always in trouble. I was in trouble with my parents, with the nuns at grade school, with the scoutmaster and even with the police. I think I grew out of that, but even as an old man I find myself bending a few rules from time to time.

I’m not alone. Everybody breaks rules. This morning, 2.2 million American adults woke up behind bars. Another 4.7 million are out on probation. They were all found guilty of breaking a rule. These aren’t trivial rules. They’re things like murder, rape and grand larceny. But, just think how many more people broke those same rules and got away with it! The point is, rules do not control behavior. Sure, you need safety rules. They define the limits of acceptable behavior. But don’t post your rules on the bulletin board and then go back in your office smugly thinking you’ve solved your problems.

Since 1933, our government has attempted to legislate and regulate safety by imposing rules and regulations and the transportation industry has been one of their favorite targets. We have rules for hours of service, fitness for duty, drugs and alcohol, vehicular speed limits, maintenance procedures, inspections, load securement, weight limits and a host of other things that can be measured and inspected. Do these rules make us safe? Nope.

Rules and Influence Are Not the Same

As we point out in our white paper The Perversion of Safety in Trucking, rules do not control behavior. If anything, we think that the overwhelming number of rules you’re forced to deal with do more harm than good. They prevent you from focusing your time and attention where it can do the most good: influencing your drivers and reducing unsafe behaviors.

Earlier, we described three main reasons why people have accidents:

  1. People fail to pay attention
  2. People exceed their performance capabilities
  3. People engage in patterns of unsafe behavior

As you look over that list, it’s hard to imagine how rules play a role in changing those behaviors.

Where Do Rules Fit-in with Safety?

Rules are less than effective, yet necessary. We want to influence our employees to avoid unsafe behaviors so we have rules to describe our expectations. But, we have to keep in mind that rules alone do not control behavior. We need more than rules to achieve exceptional safety results. We’ll uncover what we need later in this series.

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