Lifesaving Rules, Golden Rules, Cardinal Rules—many organizations identify a set of safety rules that are considered of utmost importance. The less common term “Blood Rules” graphically indicates the genesis of these rules—they come from analysis of serious injuries and fatalities within organizations and/or industries. Not surprisingly, many lifesaving rules are similar across high-hazard industries. Energy isolation, fall arrest, and safe operation of mobile equipment show up on most lists.
"...an overly simplistic approach to implementing these rules undermines their potential effectiveness"—Judy Agnew
Lifesaving rules are helpful in that they pinpoint critical safety activities that help prevent serious injuries, fatalities, and other catastrophic events. However, an overly simplistic approach to implementing these rules undermines their potential effectiveness. A common strategy includes the following steps:
While these steps are important, they are not sufficient to create a culture of lifesaving habits. This approach implies that the rules are always easy to follow (which they are not) and assumes that threatening with dismissal is the best strategy to ensure adherence (which it is not).
Some industry leaders, in the mining industry in particular, go beyond frontline-focused lifesaving rules, and create a set of protocols or controls that outline what needs to happen to enable the rules to be followed. These controls often require both management and front line involvement. For example, using fall protection when working at height is a common lifesaving rule. The controls or protocols associated with this rule might include doing pre-task hazard assessments to determine the need for fall protection, ensuring appropriate gear is readily available, identifying anchor points prior to the task, and ensuring the gear and anchor points are inspected regularly. This dual approach of identifying lifesaving behaviors at the front line and lifesaving controls or protocols that include management behavior is a more thorough approach to what are often complex situations. On the surface, it seems that stating the rule, “all employees must wear fall protection when working above 2 meters,” is straightforward and should be easy to comply with, but it often is not. Differing types of fall protection, availability of fall protection, uncertainty as to when it should be used, and lack of appropriate anchor points are just some of the ways this seemingly simple rule can be hard to follow. Pinpointing behaviors on the part of leaders helps set the front line up for success, and ensures appropriate shared ownership.
The addition of protocols or controls to lifesaving rules is helpful. However, the strategy to ensure adherence to the rules and protocols is often less effective than it could be. As noted, the most common strategy is to clarify the rules and protocols, make it clear that those caught not adhering to the rules will be terminated, and then check for compliance. Those familiar with behavioral science will recognize this as the use of antecedents (communicating and training in the rules), negative reinforcement (telling workers to follow the rule or else be terminated), and punishment (those caught violating the rule are terminated). This strategy has well-documented side effects, particularly when the negative consequences are severe, as they are in the case of lifesaving rules. The most notable side effects are fear, under-reporting, erosion of trust, and an “us-against-them” sentiment. Fear of being fired often leads to workers focusing more on not being caught, than on problem solving ways to better follow the rules. This would be less problematic if the rules were always easy to follow, however workplaces are often surprisingly complex and getting more complex all the time. Some workplaces, such as mines and construction sites, are constantly changing. So despite the appeal of a simple rule to “wear fall protection when working above 2 meters,” it is often not that simple. Ultimately, in order to ensure the rule is followed, you must create a culture where workers are willing to tell you when it has been difficult to follow the rule, and tell you when they actually did not follow the rule and why (even more risky). Workers need to be willing to say that they don’t know, they are unsure, or they are confused. Only through these conversations can sustainable rule adherence be achieved. To assume that it is always easy or even possible to follow lifesaving rules is to not understand the complex, fluid nature of most high-hazard work. To assume that threatening to terminate people for not following rules will ensure everyone follows them, is naïve. Such an approach may make senior leaders feel good about taking decisive action, but it rarely leads to the desired outcome.
A better strategy for implementing lifesaving rules and protocols is a little more complex, but necessary, and involves the addition of these interrelated steps:
Clearly, these steps are more complicated and time-consuming than just stating a rule and punishing those who don’t follow it, but lifesaving rules and protocols are rarely simple. Proceeding as though they are will ultimately undermine the goal of preventing fatalities. There are no more important behaviors to manage than those associated with lifesaving rules. Investing in managing them effectively is the most important protocol of all.