Safety rules and regulations have had a terrible press, ever since Lord Robens report of 1972 which shook -up the British OHS regulatory system, and even before. The latest attacks have led to the reports from Lord Young and Ragnar Löfstedt, who have recommended simplifications and some repeals. The same wave of rejections has swept the USA on the tea-party tide and has led to some bold and interesting experiments in European countries such as the Netherlands. There the Labour Ministry has sponsored the social partners (employers, trades unions and OHS specialists) to come up with their own ‘catalogues’ of rules to govern their respective industries, with the promise that the government regulations will then be scrapped and inspectors will use those catalogues as the basis for enforcement. Would more of that approach work in the UK? Or are we doing that enough already with the use of British Standards referred to in legislation?

But why do regulations have such a bad name? If you look objectively at anything we do as individuals or groups, we develop routines and habits, which are really just rules, including safety rules. We use and need them instead of having to work out each time how something should be done. So shouldn’t we be pleased when somebody else has taken the time and trouble to define those rules for us and given us the incentive to follow them? In fact, that is what quite a few small companies say when confronted with the current enabling legislation which asks them to devise their own safety policy and procedures: “Why don’t you just tell us what to do and we can get on with it?” After all, the process of making and keeping good safety rules looks quite complex if we set it out in flow-chart form as in figure 1.

But, ‘telling people what to do’ is not as simple as it sounds. There are very few golden rules which have no exceptions and there are often many safe ways to do a job. So regulations and company rules have to cope with a whole diverse range of situations in which their rule has to be applicable and usable. The best way to cope with this, according to research, is to treat rule-making and following as a dynamic process to be constantly debated and improved at the workplace or process (boxes 1-4 in the figure). The basic template for rules can be provided from outside, but the fine-tuning needs to be done as close to the sharp end of the users as possible and that needs to become a day-to-day process as a normal part of work – part of its continuous improvement loop. Users need also to be involved in the rule-making in boxes 7-9.

The problem with detailed government regulations in the form of specified workplace designs or behaviours is that they don’t give the room for the redesign prescribed in box 5, if they are found not to work exactly in a given workplace. That is what gives them a bad name. The answer which Robens suggested and we have been struggling with ever since is to let the government specify goals and objectives, and even specify the management processes by which these are turned into detailed rules for use at the workplace, but to leave that last translation into specific safe behaviours and conditions to those at the sharp end in companies.


Figure 1. The rule-making and –keeping process

The Dutch experiment mentioned above is taking some steps in that direction, but still gets external bodies like industry associations and trades unions to do the translation from goals into detailed rules. That is fine, if there is a general get-out clause which allows companies to apply those detailed rules as defaults, or to devise their own, if they think that they can prove they are as good or better.

The UK and Europe have gone down that road a long way, but it is still a foreign and frightening road for the USA, which is used to very detailed prescriptive government regulations driven by the compensation culture.

We have developed some of these ideas into a simple approach called ‘Team risk’, so if you would like to discuss applying that, get in touch with one of our consultants through Liz Shuttleworth (please use the contact form)

If you want to read more about the issues behind the making and use of safety rules, there are several recent publications by Andrew Hale and David Borys available for downloading:
A report to IOSH entitled ‘Management of Safety Rules and Procedures: a literature review?’ containing a review of the scientific literature on rule management at the workplace level, together with proposals for good rule management is available on the IOSH website. The site also contains Notes of Guidance for those wanting to review and improve their rule management system. The main body of the report is also published in two scientific papers: ‘Working to rule or working safely? Part 1: a state of the art review’  and ‘Working to rule or working safely?’ Part 2: the management of safety rules and procedures

At the company and regulatory system level there is a working paper entitled “Regulatory Overload: A Behavioral Analysis of Regulatory Compliance” dealing primarily with the US situation, but with relevance to the UK.

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