Are Government Regulations Getting In The Way of Safety?

As experts chide safety professionals to be more proactive and to think of safety in terms of the potential to harm instead of the incidence of harm, governments around the globe still measure safety using reactive, lagging indicators.

Is this bad? Isn’t governmental oversight of the workplace a good thing? Do we really want to consider rolling back government regulations and risk horrible tragedies? Well…yes, yes, and no.

Despite over a century of laws and enforcement aimed at protecting workers and a wealth of improvements in worker safety, there are still high profile safety, environmental, and public health disasters that renew the cry for greater action from the government.  It’s unfair to suggest that government regulations aren’t effective.  But using an ever increasing threat of fines or even criminal prosecution isn’t the answer to making the workplace safer.  Sure some business owners and managers will begrudgingly make the bear minimum investment to meet governmental requirements but do we really want business to make the workplace safer out of fear?

When a business only improves the safety of the worker because it fears fines because of a governmental inspection it believes its compliance justifies it’s inaction beyond the bare minimum.  Smart Operations managers will improve safety not because it’s the “right thing to do”—there are a host of things in business that are the right things to do—but because it’s the smart thing to do.  As long as the government keeps its standards based on lagging indicators (incident rates, first aid cases, days away or restricted, etc.) it perpetuates the idea that any work place that hasn’t killed anyone lately can be pronouced “safe”.

We need to be practical.  Nobody ever died because a fire extinguisher wasn’t hanging at the proper distance from the floor, and simply having Material Safety Data  Sheets locked in a drawer may meet safety regulations, but it hasn’t  saved any lives either.

In defense of government regulators, we have to start somewhere.  In many parts of the world, industry has shown that it cannot be trusted to safeguard its workers or its communities.  So safety regulations are necessary.  And safety regulations aren’t broken, the philosophy behind them is.  Safety regulations start with the idea that safety is quantifiable, that is, it believes that one can pronounce a workplace either “safe” or “unsafe”. While it would be nice if this were true, the fact is that no workplace can be pronounced completely safe.  And perpetuating an audit system that pretends that it’s possible to certify a workplace as devoid of risk is wrong-headed.

Certainly, audits are important and valuable, but they are problematic as well.  Auditors inspect a facility and ostensibly find and record all violations.  After the audit, the organization resumes business as usual under the reasonable assumption that everything else it is doing is not only safe, but endorsed as safe by the government.  The organization believes that it doesn’t need to lift a finger to do anything to further protect workers, after all, it has just received the government’s seal of approval.  Unfortunately, safety doesn’t work that way.  Why?

Auditors Miss Things

Even the best, most diligent auditor will occasionally miss some violations.  Some of these violations are big, some are small; some are harmless nuisances and some are lethal.  But because the facility passed the audit, it believes that it has done all it has to guarantee worker safety.  Internal safety officers and labor reps can talk until they are blue in the face but their arguments will likely fall on deaf ears because the government has already told them that they are doing all that is required.

Regulations Target The Wrong Things

Most governments require fire extinguishers be on hand, annually inspected, hung at a proper height, identified through signage, etc., but far fewer require that anyone be trained in when and how to appropriately use the fire extinguisher.  Using the wrong fire extinguisher can make the situation far worse, but we still do a half-baked job of regulating them.

Safety Is Relative

Safety is not a binary condition.  Life is not as simple as a facility being “safe” or “unsafe”.  Regulations should be updated to reflect that safety is relative. A facility can be seen as safer than another facility that is similar to it.  Or a facility can judged as safer than it was when it’s baseline was established. Or a host of other comparisons that would be meaningful and would encourage businesses to do more  than the bare minimum.

Some regulators have tried to do this kind of comparative analysis.  In Ontario, Canada, the provincial government provides businesses with a Workplace Wellness Score.  Companies with high injuries and low workplace wellness scores face higher taxes than similar companies with lower injury rates and better scores.  Even so, Ontario’s system needs significant redesign to be most effective.  For example, injury rates and employee complaints are given far too much weight to make the program effective. Workers can shut down production by asserting that the work is unsafe to be performed.  Work stops until a Minister of Labour representative can investigate and pronounce the work safe. While in many cases this regulation is used in good faith there is widespread abuse of this law has turned safety into a negotiating tactic.  People are playing dangerous games with the law.

Audits Are Static Workplaces are Dynamic

Recently I was asked to begin reviewing the covers of a safety magazine.  The job seemed simple enough: I was to look at a proposed magazine cover and determine whether there was anything unsafe portrayed (no publisher of a safety magazine wants a cover that shows an unsafe condition on the cover).  Before agreeing to take the job, I made a point of making the disclaimer that a) nothing can ever be pronounced completely safe, and b) I was looking at a static photo without context so I couldn’t really say that the workers in the photo were working safely, but conversely no one looking at the same photo could say definitively that the worker was behaving unsafely.

The exercise got me thinking,  Safety is a dynamic characteristic that is highly dependent on context and yet audits are snapshots of a moment within the highly fluid and dynamic world of business.  However valuable that snapshot is, however much is uncovered in the audit, it’s just a snapshot.  The highly volatile and ever present variability in human behavior will always create problematic situations.  In short, no matter how thorough the audit, significant threats to worker well being can materialize literally as the auditor drives away.

How Can We Fix This?

Fixing the problem is going to be difficult.  In the U.K. politicians are openly asking if the laws designed to protect workers are too restrictive.  In the U.S. congressmen repeatedly claim that safety regulations are too strict and place an undue onus on businesses. And what’s worse is 40 years of BBS snake oil has safety professionals themselves reinforcing the believe that workers are largely to blame for their injuries.

We need to evangelize that safety is about reducing the risk of injury, and the severity of those injuries that we failed to prevent.  Safety needs to be a criteria for success not an after thought.  Safety regulations need to change from quantitative measurements to qualitative measurements.  And finally we need to make people understand that improving safety is not about cost, its about cost reduction and cost savings.



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