Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Stepford Safety Program


Safety is about setting the standard and then holding people accountable for deviating from that standard.

Do you agree?

Many do, and even those who don’t necessarily agree with the above statement (especially those who say “it’s so much more than that”), agree with their actions. Look how much of safety is spent doing things to make people comply with the standards we set. We write rules and procedures, we train them, we develop complex job planning systems, we develop incentive programs (with both punishment and rewards), we conduct behavior observations to make sure they are doing what we want them to do.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate how much this paradigm affects our practice in safety is to do a little exercise with us. Take out a piece of paper and write out all of the things you do in your job as a safety professional that do not involve trying to get people to conform to a standard that you (or management) set for them. Be specific! How many can you list? If you’re like most safety professionals you probably can’t list that many.

Another example – what’s the biggest threat to your safety program? Did you say something like:
  • Complacency?
  • Shortcuts?
  • People not paying attention?
  • Human error?
  • People violating rules and procedures?

In 1972, Ira Levin released The Stepford Wives. The book, which was adapted into a movie twice, is a satire about feminism and conformity. Husbands allegedly replace their professionally successful and free-thinking wives with robots who are more docile and submissive. The term “Stepford Wife” has achieved a bit of pop culture icon status in being a way to describe the stereotypical passive, obedient wife that lives to serve her husband and kids.


Sometimes it seems like what the safety profession really wants is Stepford Workers. We want workers who don’t think for themselves, but just listen for instructions and do exactly as they are told. Deviations from standards are stupid. Why? Because these are safety rules and standards after all! Any deviation from a safety rule must be the result of someone who is either morally or mentally deficient, right?

So we set up our Stepford Safety Programs accordingly. We set the standard and look for ways to get people to comply with our standard. We don’t have the luxury of turning our workers into robots, like the husbands in Stepford did. But we do the next best thing – we take all the thinking out of the job. We don’t trust workers to think for themselves, so we design the work with as little thinking as possible, which makes workers bored when they work, so their minds wander, which can lead to more instances of deviations and error, which reinforces our lack of trust in them.

What if we’re wrong though? Let’s go back to the statement at the top and analyze it a bit to see if it passes the sniff test.


Safety is about setting the standard and then holding people accountable for deviating from that standard.

If this true, then consider the following:
  • This means that the standards we create have to perfectly or near-perfectly match the work environment. How often do rules and procedures perfectly or near-perfectly match the work environment?    
  • This means those who write the standards need to have special knowledge and/or abilities that those who must comply don’t have. How much training do managers typically get on safety management? How much knowledge do managers and safety professionals typically have of how work actually gets done?    
  • This means that deviations must result only from the individuals making decisions to deviate. Are there ever any organizational, social and/or environmental influences on why people would deviate from a standard?    
  • This means that when someone deviates, the best (and perhaps only) way to deal with that deviation is to punish that person. Are there ways to eliminate violations that don’t involve punishing the worker?    
The reality is that:
  • Rules, procedures and plans are always imperfect They are poorly written and can never account for every work environment. This creates situations where workers have to choose between violating the rule to get the job done or to not do their job. What do you think most of them will choose?
  • Managers rarely are trained on even the basics of managing safety and most managers and safety professionals have very little clue about how work is actually getting done in their organizations (although they think they know exactly what’s happening).
  • There are almost always outside influences in the organization, in the social environment or in the physical environment that exert pressure on workers. These act like magnets, pulling workers in various directions. Often these pressures contradict, so that to meet one goal (e.g., production), the worker must fail at another goal (e.g., follow the safety rules). 
  • The easiest way to eliminate violations is almost never punishment.  Take a very simple example of ladder violations – eliminate the ladder (i.e., find another way to do the job that doesn’t include a ladder) and you eliminate the violation. It’s a simplistic example, but it shows how taking a bigger picture view opens up possibilities outside of the individual for dealing with individual problems. 
Now we’re not saying that deviations are necessarily good. We aren’t saying that standards, rules, procedures and plans are unnecessary.

What we are saying is that the safety profession’s obsession with behavior and treating people like they are a problem to control is misguided. The best part of our workers is their ability to think, to be creative, to problem solve. If we have Stepford Workers we miss out on this.


Standards and accountability play a role in a safety management system, but only a part. We must have a system that utilizes the strengths of standards and accountability, yet is also aware of their weaknesses and limitations. So when we set standards, we have systems in place to identify when the standard is inappropriate or ineffective and we can adjust accordingly.

What does this look like? Here are some tips to get you started:
  1. Never put in a rule, standard or procedure without having some way to know if the rule is actually effective These things are supposed to help people do their job, so perhaps an easy way to measure effectiveness is to see whether the new rule, standard or procedure makes the job easier or harder to do. 
  2. Practice humble inquiry Your workers have unique perspectives on the jobs they do. Tap into that resource. Before you implement a standard, rule, or procedure get your workers involved and ask them how they’d fix the problem. 
  3. Get out and talk to your workers. This is not a behavior observation. Ask them questions like “what is making your job difficult these days?” You’ll find safety issues that you would never find any other way. 
  4. Whenever you have violations, find out why the violation makes sense to the employee (and don’t just say because he/she is stupid or a jerk). They did what they did because they thought it would help them get their job done safely (although not necessarily in compliance with the rules). Why? What in their environment made them think it was ok?    



Doing these things will get us well on our way to dismantling our Stepford Safety Programs and setting up Safety Programs based on engagement, teamwork and continual improvement.

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