Complying with rules is often seen as the (or at least an important) way to create safety. But you and I now know that compliance with safety rules alone is not enough to actually make the workplace safe. But what many of us do not know is that safety laws and regulations have often been created with very different goals in mind than safety.
Safety and Health Risk Management Regulations
1. Why do we actually have safety rules?
Without getting bogged down in a long discussion of legal philosophy, we can establish that safety rules can serve various purposes. Some of them are:
- promoting and achieving certain objectives;
- controlling and directing activities and people by clarifying expectations and limitations;
- providing a benchmark for measuring whether the desired level is reached and, if necessary, forcing and punishing ‘rotten apples’;
- passing on knowledge and lessons learned from accidents;
- balancing of different interests and objectives.
2. The compromised nature of safety rules
To go further with the last point: rules are almost always compromised. We may be inclined to think that indicating a minimum level of protection is the main objective of safety rules. But no, economic objectives are often the most important driver. Legislation and regulations are often mainly about one thing: money. A balance between (or better minimum level of) the social requirement for protection and a limitation of what that may cost.
The same applies to other European safety rules, such as CE marking. These too serve primarily free trade and must prevent national security rules from creating a trade barrier. And, of course, at the same time, they ensure a minimum safety level.
Long live interoperability!
Take the railways, for example. Most European legislation in this sector has been created with the primary objective of promoting interoperability. So to ensure that trains can travel from one country to the other without hindrance. The rules may have names such as safety directive or common safety methods but are nevertheless not primarily about safety. They are mainly about interoperability, so the ability of devices, systems or units to work together, and the opening of markets. The only secondary do they ensure that the current level of safety is maintained – and that interoperability is not hampered by that safety.
A balance between economic/political goals and security goals
In this way, most security rules are actually intended to strike a balance between economic or political goals and security goals. Even rules about mandatory measures or about exposure to hazardous substances are usually a compromise. A compromise between what science considers safe and what is technically and commercially feasible.
This already started with the first modern safety legislation. The British Factory Act of 1833 was delayed for about a decade due to disagreements about machine shielding. Asbestos is another example. The only really safe level is zero fibers. But since this is impossible due to factors such as background exposure, higher limit and action values apply.
Rules are also compromised with regard to an entirely different aspect. It is impossible to make rules that cover every situation. After all, you cannot foresee everything. So rules are made either for the vast majority of situations (average situations) or precisely for the exceptions (emergency situations). This means that there will always be exceptions to the rule, because rules are by definition a compromise between completeness and efficiency. This also means that we cannot always apply rules blindly, but often need some sort of interpretation before we can apply them.
3. There are hidden agendas behind many rules
Finally, we must realize that we often use rules as visible actions after an accident or crisis. Rules are often a quick way to fix something. We consider acting quickly as a sign of decisiveness and taking responsibility. Often with the addition that this is to ensure that ‘this never occurs again’. At least not in the period that the person who makes the rule bears responsibility. A possible goal of new rules can therefore simply be to cover a manager or politician or to put them in the right light.
Regulators often do not realize that there may be side effects and conflicts with new rules. Or they consciously ignore it because short-term objectives are more important to them. For people in certain positions it is often more important to do ‘something’ and that quickly and visibly, than to actually tackle a problem. Perception counts. Newspaper headlines, opinion polls and voters often have short memories. That is why more attention is regularly paid to the person than to what really matters.
Safety rules to push through a dot
Supervisors and other stakeholders, such as trade unions, are also inclined to use rules for their own agendas. An accident or crisis can give them a sense of urgency (or be the crowbar) to finally get attention for their interests, concerns or hobby horses. Or to push through a dot.
There are sufficient examples of legal and safety literature: laws, regulations, and rules that are made to solve an existing or imagined problem. An example of safety rule – mandatory use of safety helmets when using a motorbike (need a good motorbike cover for your motorbike’s safety? check this out – https://www.johnburrcycles.com/motorcycle/storage/best-covers/) in traveling.
While they then lead to something completely counterproductive. Consider the increase in control and over-security in the name of security following terrorist attacks. Or many certification systems. All examples of what people can say mixed feelings about.
So … think about this before you insist on compliance with safety rules.
Use rules created positively for the wrong reason
After this somewhat critical and perhaps negative argument, it is good to also recognize that we can even use things that have been created for the ‘wrong’ reasons in a positive way. Take, for example, those European railways regulations. Even if they are primarily made to guarantee interoperability, there are certainly positive safety effects. Like the new member states in the east that raise their standards. Or the common safety methods that encourage the different carriers, infrastructure managers and supervisors to adopt similar approaches. This contributes to more transparent processes and a common safety language.