Compliance paralysis

file000704919536Recently, a friend of mine visited a construction site. The site was in the middle of nowhere, in the Australian outback, and my friend was there for a one day boardroom meeting. After the 1 hour site induction in a building near the gate, a group of six visitors left the building with their host. Walking over to the meeting room, the group had to cross a road. The host took out a form and said:

-I don’t see any vehicles approaching. Do you?

The road was blocked by the gate in one direction and empty as far as one could see in the other. After the six members had stated that they did not see any vehicles approaching, the host checked a box. He then went on:

-I think it is safe to cross the road. Do you think it is safe to cross the road?

Again, the six grown-ups nodded. The host checked another box, signed the form and the group crossed the road.

In trying times, we look to authorities to provide us with answers. When things are difficult and messy, people like to have someone showing the way, to have someone or something external guiding us as to what is safe to do.

Safety, with its proximity to loss, damage and destruction, is in this respect perhaps particularly prone to externalisation – few people are inclined to take responsibility for accidents. Against a backdrop of potential adversity, it is nice or soothing even, to have procedures and other ‘from above’ sanctioned ways of being.

Obviously, the administrative ritual above has little to do with an ambition to be safe. Everyone knows and understands that minutely following a piece of paper is not what makes things safe. Everyone knows and understands that there are many other ways to cross the road in more efficient and equally safe ways. But still, in a setting like that most of us would probably play along.

The ritual is about complying with the ‘systems’ in place – systems to ensure that the organisation has executed its legally obliged duty of care. It is ass-covering in action. Referring to external things allows hiding. As a group, behind prescribed ways of being, we engage in ways we would never do as individuals. Perhaps this is why many organisations are inclined to do copy-paste of what the giants of their industry are doing, without considering the appropriateness of importing such standards to a different setting.

Safety efforts are too often driven by the fear of punishment. It may be fear of litigation, of losing a contract, losing good-will and reputation, losing share prices, or of losing something else. Similarly, individuals may follow such unreasonable and meaningless charades out of fear of getting sacked or otherwise ‘disciplined’.

Preventing negatives for the sake of avoiding another negative turns safety into a non-additive commodity. Put differently, it’s a commitment to make things less worse. At best, it may preserve status quo. But safety is not, in this perspective, about improving, evolving, or about supporting people and organisations to be successful. Instead, safety is reduced to a mind-numbing exercise. While fear may sometimes move people into action, this kind of motivation is external only. For the internal (like creativity, courage, care, inspiration, responsibility) it’s paralysing. Punishment avoidance kills encouragement and task ownership. And it brings about negative, dull, time-consuming, and frustrating processes.

While we may want to raise capable individuals who speak up when they see better and smarter ways of running things, compliance is praised when it comes to safety. Sure, it all comes from a ‘good’ intent. But the result is individuals who abdicate their capacity to adapt, create and act before consulting some selectively slender administrative ideal. The result is powerful and precise documents, but also people without power and with blunt tools.


  1. riskex Reply

    Great article Daniel and sadly a real example of the rubbish that is giving important safety efforts a bad name. Some snotty nose kid in head office is probably very proud of that procedure. Unfortunately stupid systems take resources and focus away from mush more important issues. How could such a company expect their employees to take anything seriously.

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Thanks Dave! Procedures and top level managements strategies are often ‘fantasy documents’, produced with a often narrow understandings. The trick, and the difficulty, seems to be to get those with the resources to shape such tools, to better understand and embrace the complexities of the actual setting. Eg it would be a good starting point bringing the snotty nose kid and the people exposed to his/her procedure into the same room

  2. Les Henley Reply

    For me there’s nothing worse than senior managers instilling meaningless compliance processes simply as a ‘butt covering’ exercise in the name of ‘Safety’.
    In my experience this is usually due to a lack of effort to properly understand what Safety Management really is about (how easy is it to get senior managers to sit still for a decent education/training session on safety?). But out of fear of prosecution for failure to fulfil their legislative obligaitons (because of what the Industrial lawyer tells them) they impose these childish compliance standards.
    This approach only serves to make ‘Safety Management’ into an expensive joke in the minds of the front line worker who want to get on with the job.
    I admit – we must find the balance between the nonsense as described here and the other end of the spectrum where no effort is made to understand and manage the risks associated with work tasks.
    But let’s not forget – the Courts always assume the ‘reasonable person’ approach to determining responsibility.
    I wonder if the process you experienced was ‘borrowed’ from an OHSMS related to a city based construction site where a traffic management plan was implemented to manage road safety on or near busy roads?????

  3. mervynsher Reply

    Since when has compliance anything to do with safety?

    Compliance relates to the framework and guidelines supplied under Standards and Legislation. Framework, Guidleines.

    Safety comes from culture, learning, doing, being, accepting responsibility. All the things that compliance to a Standard or Legislation do not.

  4. Matt Steele Reply

    Hi Daniel
    I shall preface this comment with a caution to be wary of passing judgement on a site’s controls based on your friend’s (I.E. second hand) experience. Without knowing why they had that particular control in place it is difficult to understand the intent.
    It could be that the guide did not explain the reason for the control to your friend either (could be that there is a cultural vehicle awareness program on site, based on positive communication between members of a group, could be that on all others sites there are large volumes of traffic including road trains and all sites, even the quiet ones, have to use the control to maintain consistency). Also you dismiss “office based people not knowing what really happens on this particular site” when you (in this instance) are guilty of the same thing – commenting without context.
    Ask yourself why would a control like this be required? What is the context? Is it as ineffective as you profess? Then, next time your friend is on site – offer a solution for improvement of this “mind numbing exercise” without the negativity.
    I actually find the “Snotty Nosed Kid” comment particularly offensive. How dare we condemn another safety professional for probably doing the best they could with the resources provided? I am sure when you last worked on a construction/mine site you had similar constraints.
    This may in fact have been derived from worker engagement and may have been a success for all we know!
    While I agree that controls aimed solely at covering ones ass are – difficult to justify, they will continue until regulators and our society’s love of litigation make a brave change from “punish the guilty” to lead, consult, engage, improve and change, yes there will be consequences when things go wrong, but we will give you every opportunity to learn from those consequences and improve. The industry is slowly evolving from a safety = absence of negative, to safety = increased worker satisfaction, production, reputation etc, and it will take time, but, until then let’s not ridicule the efforts of others hard work as “administrative rituals with no ambition to be safe” miles away from a blog, we are better than that.

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      The point of the post was to initiate a discussion about external and internal drivers for safety. In particular, to point out the negative effects of acting out of fear of punishment. It is quite possible that another example would have been better in doing so. The story is not verifiable for others so of course it introduces all kinds of validity issues. I hope that site visitors have their own experiences to support or to disagree with the position taken.

      More importantly, the bashing attitude of my post is perhaps not helpful in opening up to do safety differently. Point taken and appreciated. To be considered in future post.

  5. mikebehm Reply

    This is a good article and discussion. What if, by the time the host checked the box and signed the form, another vehicle or other hazard was approaching? After all my colleagues and I here in the US hear about all those dangerous creatures in the Outback where this story is set. We can’t write everything down about safety, and sometimes our best intentions create new hazards, complacency, or worse yet reinforce the mindset that safety is a people problem and we should continue utilising lower order administrative controls to solve our issues. It is an interesting disucssion. Thanks. I will use this with my students and see what they think.

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