In the safety world there’s a proverbial elephant in the room – compliance. In almost any country where safety professionals work in there are laws and regulations related to safety that must be complied with. In the United States, for occupational safety, we have OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration). And safety professionals throughout the United States spend a large part of their time focusing on ensuring their organizations maintain compliance with OSHA requirements (if you’re a safety professional, think about how your job would change if all regulations were abolished tomorrow). The need for regulations is certainly controversial, but most believe that they serve an important purpose for society.
Regulations are all well and good, but, just like everything else, regulations do not exist in a vacuum.
In the world of complex systems theory, in a complex system changes can cascade through the system and create unintended, often unpredictable behavior (called “emergent behavior”). This is not because of any of the components in the system, but rather because of their relationships. So, for example, heavy traffic in cities did not emerge because cars, cities, business, or roads were invented. Heavy traffic emerges because of the relationships between all of these and other features, interacting in ways that were difficult to predict (although they seem simple in hindsight).
Regulations are not an end goal, but a means to an end. In the safety world, the intention of regulations is to facilitate the creation of safety. Safety, as we’ve discussed previously is an abstract concept, so people often try to make it more concrete, and regulations is one of those ways. So, as regulations have been introduced into the complex system of organizational life, behavior emerged that was unintended and difficult to predict – people started defining safety by compliance.
Here’s an example. Ask a safety professional at what height can a worker work safely without some sort of external fall protection. You get a variety of answers that usually revolve around “well it depends on if it’s construction or general industry”, or “6 feet”. If you start to explore what research, thought process, calculation, etc. the professional used to come up with their answer, they are usually dumb-founded. They didn’t think or do much research. Their mind answered your abstract question (“what makes a job safe?”) by substituting it for an easier question to answer (“what does the regulation say we need to do?”). The most common answer to the question, in our experience, is 6 feet, which is the OSHA standard for fall protection (for most construction activities). We’ve substituted “safety” for “compliance”.
This seems somewhat benign, assuming the regulations are well-written, but the problem is that this substitution creates a serious, hidden problem. When we substitute compliance for safety, we have changed the definition of both compliance and safety to something that neither intended. In the case of compliance, we’ve changed compliance to a goal, an end state. The idea is that we get to compliance and then we stop asking questions. All regulators that we’ve talked to though will tell you that this is not the intention of regulations. Regulations were meant to be the starting point, not the end point – i.e. we achieve compliance and then we ask if that’s good enough for us and we keep building from there. If we routinely substitute safety for regulations though we lose focus on this and see regulations as our goal.
Secondly, and most importantly, by coupling regulatory compliance with safety we start to see safety as an end state unto itself – i.e. safety is something we can achieve or get to. But this is an unrealistic view of safety. Safety is not something you have, safety is something you do. Safety emerges through interactions of people, the organization, equipment, tools, etc. It is constantly changing due to changes in each of those features. Therefore you can’t ever really get to “safety” because, similar to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, once you identify it things have changed. So, at best we can only say we were safe.
So what does all of this mean? We need to decouple safety and regulations. Certainly there are regulations out there designed to help organizations be safe. But regulations are only a tool amongst many other tools designed to help us be safe. Certainly regulations have an important role, given that they have the force of law behind them, so they should be given due consideration. But we cannot define safety as regulatory compliance. We need to change the conversation away from “what do we have to do?” to “what do we want to do?”. This means that next time you are asked the safe way to do a job, it’s ok to say what the regulations say, but don’t stop there. Safety should be about what’s possible, not about making work impossible. Safety should not be about holding people and organizations back, but about facilitating success.