AMSJ » Is The Focus On Compliance Harming Safety Performance?

Is The Focus On Compliance Harming Safety Performance?

Surely Compliance Can’t Be A Bad Thing

OK, so to be clear, compliance in itself is not the problem I’m going to bang on about in this article. The issue I’m going to take a swing at is an increasing trend I have noticed amongst medium and large organisations where the concept of being compliant has become synonymous with being safe.


Again, compliance isn’t the problem, it’s what we make compliance mean, and the consistent thread is that when someone says that their organisation is compliant, that gets broadly taken to mean that their organisation is safe. Of course, anyone involved I safety, or actually doing work at the risk face knows that that isn’t true. So let’s look at some of the issues.


Decision Making Gets Driven By Compliance Not Risk

In an organisation dominated by compliance thinking (eg. we must be compliant), there is little room for grey. Things have to be right or wrong, safe or unsafe. There is actually very little space for meaningful conversations about risk.


Sure, some risks can have fairly clear line between safe and unsafe (eg. exposure to toxins), but for many other risks the concept of safe and unsafe is a wide grey line (eg. manual handling). Therefore the ability to be compliant in relation to these risks, where every situation is a “it depends” can only ever be a myth. Further, the drive for compliance creates mythical rules to manage the tension. This is exactly how we end up with weight limits in manual handling.


It gives a false sense of safety

When compliant comes to mean safe organisations create systems to generate information that verifies compliance. It makes sense, but it also creates a false sense of safety. For example, having evidence in the form of completed checklists, pre-starts, take 5s, or conversations does not mean things are safe. It’s the same as having evidence that everyone has signed the Safe Work Method Statement. These artifacts have no bearing on safety, they are just created records of something that, if done, may have a positive impact on safety (but even those are maybe’s and not absolutes). But that subtlety is often lost, and when pushed the organisation falls back onto evidence of the activity as a substitute for the activity itself.


Compliance Is Easier To Measure But Less Meaningful

Heavily linked to the previous point, is that when trying to measure safety, it’s much easier to measure the outputs of activities (how many times did we inspect), than the efficacy of the activities (was the inspection effective) themselves. This is compounded by the ridiculous situation we are in where there is universal acceptance that incident data is not a reliable measure of safety, yet still no one can let go if it. So we still measure incidents, and have developed positive performance indicators, and still none of that is measuring safety. It all just measures activity as a way of saying “we are compliant”.


Compliance Wastes Time and Energy

Compliance sucks up a disproportionate amount of resources for little gain. Just think about what happens in the lead up to audits, or prior to regulator visits. Does the activity make the organisation any safer, or just more compliant? See the issue?


OK, But What Can We Do About This?

  1. Find out for yourself- Ask people what they think compliance means. Get feedback and see if I’m right or wrong. Ask them if they think being more compliant makes the organisation safer. Do they think complying with the safety management system, or their personal safety KPIs makes a difference?
  2. Decouple safety and compliance- Don’t label things that have to be done with safety unless they are a direct safety risk. Just be honest with your workforce and say that a certain thing is a compliance requirement because of a customer requirements, or getting funding, or holding a license to operate, or you just want to implement a consistent uniform policy. This preserves safety for risk, and leaves compliance for other things, and importantly it carries more meaning for the workforce.
  3. Process over paperwork- When discussing safety related activities, talk about the process, not the measurable or observable outcome. So ask people about the risks, not whether they have completed the risk assessment. Talk about conducting a check of an area or a piece of equipment, not about completing the checklist. Talk to someone about safety, but don’t require them to record it as a safety conversation (if you have a KPI for safety conversations please stop it for all of the reasons already covered in this article).


Final Word

If you remove the language of compliance from safety it creates a space that will be filled by something else which will hopefully be more meaningful. When someone asks “are we safe?” there is no answer within the activity data. You have to go looking elsewhere, and maybe that somewhere could be getting back in connection with people. Before there was data, the only way leaders knew what was happening was to talk to people. I know it’s a radical concept, but it has a lot more meaning and is a lot more effective than counting the number of checklists we complete every month and calling that safety.


Dave Whitefield – Director- People and Risk

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AMSJ Nov 2021