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Rules and How to Make Them Work

Posted 4/1/2017

Our clients have often heard me ask, “How do you get a good idea off of the conference room table and into the field?” and “Why would anyone violate a safety rule that everyone says is a good one that they all agree with?”

Yet our claims histories show that workers do, in fact, violate safety rules. 

So, why would any worker choose to ignore a safety rule that is clearly intended to prevent injuries? Why do safety rules and actual work practices not match up every single time? Are rules not made clear? Do workers not believe the rules mean every single time? Why might that be?

Well, one reason could be that past practices have tolerated some level of exceptions. One of our clients recently had an incident where a worker was burned while not wearing his protective rubber gloves. Yet the work rules call for them to be worn for all hot work of this type. When interviewed by the supervisor and the GM, the worker said he was following all of the rules, and hadn’t committed any violation. Huh?

Habit and “accepted” work practices can contribute to a belief among some workers that the “rules” are not meant for them, or for every event they seem to apply to. And the more such exceptions exist, the greater the chance for an injury. Fortunately, this worker is likely to recover and return to work. His manager will have to decide how to handle the need to correct his behavior. 

Of even greater value to others is the lesson that can be learned from this investigation. A safety culture that supports following the work rules every time can only be created if management works constantly to reinforce the message No Exceptions to the rules. This is particularly important when rules are changed to a more stringent standard. It is human nature to develop habits. It is human nature to continue doing things the way that has worked in the past. The longer this behavior is allowed to continue, the less of a violation it seems to be. “Nothing went wrong and no one told us to stop because we were not following the new rules.”

It is then especially important for management to thoroughly educate all workers on any and all safety rules, particularly new, more stringent requirements. Rules should be widely publicized, reviewed in safety meetings, with discussions of the value of each rule, what it means, and why it was implemented, and what effect it has on other work practices. Uniform enforcement of all safety rules is critical. Supervisors and managers need to understand and communicate to their employees that following safety rules is not optional. Employees and their supervisors should be held responsible for following the rules. As many of you have heard me say, when a violation is seen, on a crew visit, on a drive by, or in any work setting, the employee should be corrected, but the foreman/lead lineman/supervisor should be held accountable for allowing it. “If you can’t get your workers to follow the rules, I will have to find someone who can,” is one way to put the message. (You may prefer a more user friendly version. That's fine, just make sure the message is understood.)  

Management has the responsibility to develop safety rules and ensure the rules are uniformly enforced. Both management and all employees should be held accountable for following the safety rules. By making constant references to the expectations, enforcing the rules at all times for all violators, and even more importantly, by saying, “Thanks” and patting backs when the rules are fully followed, a successful safety culture can be grown. It takes time, effort, and consistancy, but it can be done as many of you have learned.