Safety shortcuts are here to stay – go with the flow!
By Dominic Cooper
People are hard-wired to take shortcuts due to the balance between energy intake (i.e. food) and energy output (i.e. effort spent on an activity) which means we automatically take the “path of least resistance”. In other words, we are hard-wired to do things the easy way.
Thousands of years ago, we learned that digging holes, placing stakes in them, and driving animals into the holes was a more efficient means of obtaining meat than throwing spears and chasing after them while they died. These days we make people fabulously wealthy for inventing tools that help us take similar short-cuts; we drive cars so we do not have to walk, and we use electric or gas cookers to cook our food instead of collecting wood and building a fire. These two ‘shortcut’ examples show that society is always striving to reduce effort and be more efficient in our approach to daily life.
In the world of work, lean manufacturing/engineering is a way of institutionalising shortcuts by deliberately trying to reduce the amount of effort required to produce goods and services, as companies strive to become more efficient and profitable. In the world of work, health, safety and environment is the only topic area where taking a shortcut is bad news. Given that both society and organisations actively encourage people to develop easier ways of doing things, with huge financial rewards on offer if they get it right, why are we so surprised when individuals do the same?
While shortcuts in health and safety do sometimes lead to injuries, people tend to learn to take these shortcuts from overcoming organisational failings[i] such as not having the right equipment in the right place at the right time. If nobody got hurt and the task was completed on time or ahead of schedule, the people concerned will often choose to use the same method next time they are faced with that activity. So one way of eliminating or reducing shortcuts is to optimise the job plans for activities and make sure everything required to do a job safely is present when people turn up to do a task (job planning is one of the major underlying contributors to serious injuries and fatalities[ii]).
Recognising that taking shortcuts is part of the human condition, the HSE profession also needs to go with the flow and work on developing optimal rules and procedures. Often, the term ‘shortcut’ in HSE refers to someone circumventing the rules and procedures, so they could get the job done quicker. The answer to any such compliance issue is to assess whether this issue is related to administrative, technical, educational, planning, manpower, or willingness problems[iii].
Operational difficulties from working strictly to the HSE rules and procedures are usually more than enough proof that safety rules and procedures are seriously flawed. For example, one study[iv] showed non-compliance was mostly related to: [a] rules seen as too complex, not ‘real world’, [b] rules seen as making the job less safe; [c] procedures often being unavailable; [d] procedures not making sense; and [e] procedures being too rigid, inflexible, or numerous.
Operational managers and the workforce will always know what the problems are with rules and procedures, so it makes good sense to involve them in the reviews, as they have intimate knowledge of the work and the attending difficulties. Importantly, those who are involved in such reviews are much more likely to follow the rules as they will have some degree of ownership of them. Given that our safety rules and procedures are not written in stone, this is both desirable and doable: it merely requires a willingness.
[i] Reason, J. (1990). Human Error. Cambridge University Press.
[ii] Cooper, M.D. (2014). Identifying, Controlling and Eliminating Serious Injury and Fatalities. In: Heather Beach (Ed). Beyond Compliance: Innovative Leadership in Health and Safety, SHP Online
[iii] HSE Books (1999). Improving compliance with safety procedures – Reducing industrial violations. ISBN: 0 7176 0970 7.
[iv] Laurence, D. (2005). Safety rules and regulations on mine sites–the problem and a solution. Journal of Safety Research, 36(1), 39-50.