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The Safety Professional’s Paradox: Rules Versus Risk 


man standing over a risk vs safety sign

We have written extensively on safety and risk management, and the impotence of federal regulations on highway safety.  You read that right: impotence, not importance.  Once again, we find ourselves arguing against regulations promulgated in the name of safety.

Safety is defined as freedom from risk  and, by that definition, we can never really be safe.  My apologies if you are the Director of Safety.  I had that job title many years ago, but upon reflection I can now see the irony.  The job may as well be called Director of Impossible.  Why?  Because we can never be fully free from all risks.  By definition, we can never be entirely safe.  That’s especially true when you put trucks out on the road.

So even if your job title says safety, your focus must be on managing risk– that is to remove or reduce the risks in our environment. But how?  What are the risks and how do we remove or reduce them?  Most risk comes from human behaviors. People do dumb things and get hurt.

You’ve heard the old adage before: we’re human and humans make mistakes.  It’s true.  For example, we routinely fail to pay attention to our surroundings.  We crash into things.  Sometimes, these events are downright silly, like stubbing your toe on a piece of furniture that hasn’t been moved in years.  But when it comes to driving, the environment is complicated.  We share the road with others and people constantly move in different directions and at different speeds.  It’s easy to lose track of where everyone is. Unsafe behaviors, such as failing to pay attention, result in collisions and injuries.

From time to time we also exceed our performance capabilities.  Our ego convinces us that we can do something beyond our abilities.  We go out on the road without enough rest, or we drive too fast for conditions, or we attempt to text while we drive.  Unsafe behaviors, such as exceeding our capabilities, result in collisions and injuries.

The most pernicious risk comes from our very human nature to develop bad habits. H. W. Heinrich famously wrote on unsafe behavior patterns more than 85 years ago, but not much has changed, certainly not human nature.  All of us have a few bad habits.  We accept certain risks in our daily routines to get little rewards.  For example, maybe we roll through stop signs, drive after a few beers, or text while driving.  We do these things to get little rewards.  If we keep getting the rewards, we keep accepting the risks.  But eventually these unsafe behaviors catch up to us and we have a consequence, such as a collision or injury.  It’s only a matter of time.

If you took an interest in this website, you probably work in a trucking company, and if you’ve read this far into this post, you probably have an interest in reducing risk. But how do you spend your days?  Chances are good that you spend more than half your time at work dealing with regulations and maintaining compliance.

Why is that?  Do regulations reduce or eliminate risk?  Do regulations control the unsafe behaviors mentioned above?  If so, we’d have fewer collisions and injuries. If regulations, rules and laws really worked, two million people would not be in prison for driving-related incidents. We need some rules and regulations.  But every time the government promulgates another rule, they force you to invest more time and attention away from what is really important: driver behaviors.

Make no mistake about it; our government is made up caring people, who want to do good. They care about their wives, husbands and children---and the public as a whole--- just as much as we do. But they are limited as to how much they can accomplish.  In fact, government is forced to rely on one and only one tool: regulations.  But regulations are nothing more than rules, and rules, by themselves can never achieve safety outcomes.  Rules do not control behavior.

Unfortunately, as government thrusts each new rule upon the industry, limited resources are stretched just a little further. Safety professionals are forced to focus more and more on maintaining compliance, rather than on the far more important work of influencing and managing drivers’ behaviors.  So, when you come to work tomorrow, put things in perspective.  Do your best to balance your time between the rules you’re obligated to follow and removing or reducing the unsafe driver behaviors that lead to risk.  Oh, and tell your boss you need a new job title.


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