Author Bio ▼

Dominic Cooper PhD is a chartered fellow of IOSH and a professional member of the American Society of Safety Engineers. He is co-founder and CEO of BSMS Inc., a global safety consulting firm based in Franklin, IN, USA. A chartered psychologist, Dominic consults with senior executives on safety leadership, culture and behaviour change. He has authored many books, articles and scientific research papers on safety culture, behavioural-safety and leadership.

November 23, 2015

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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.

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Steve Peckittmuri balogunFreddieDom CooperDarren Green Recent comment authors
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Great piece.
I’ve been saying for years that if we can make the safest way the easiest way then people will be more likely to do things in the safe way, purely because it is easier for them personally.
If an employer conducted lean activities, and they involve their H&S and quality teams in the activities, the employer can not only gain by making the work easier and quicker (and therefore cheaper) to undertake, but safer and all the while maintaining or even improving their QA standards.
Its a win/win/win situation.

Darren Green
Darren Green

I totally agree, often it is safer to develop the “safest” system of work with what they are actually doing, rather than living in denial thinking they are carrying out the job out “the long way”.

Dom Cooper
Dom Cooper

Thanks Mike and Darren. Appreciate the feedback.

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree

There are many words or euphemisms for it, expediency, procrastination, denial, avoidance, non-compliance, can’t be bovered, laziness whateveerr, like, you know, someone else’s opportunity to do nothing, anything rather than something………

Work/life also reflected in custom and practice of self-medicating with everything from caffeine to keep alert to ant-acids, analgesics and alcohol in the evenings to dull the affects of stress and performance anxiety rather than address the psycho-social occupational health issues of work/life ………

Dom Cooper
Dom Cooper

Thanks for highlighting the need to look at psychosocial issues, though I am not sure how that relates to shortcuts per se


I like the thought process of this topic. I as a H&S professional actively encourage employees to take short cuts, providing it is safe to do so, employees give me surprised looks when I make this statement, however the benefits are very positive and adopting the keep it simple attitude goes a long way in gaining changes of behaviour and health and safety procedures being followed due to the employees suggestions or recommendations.

muri balogun
muri balogun

This is a very interesting topic and a tool in achieving the task at the earliest time frame while keeping the HSE standards intact but I disagree with applying the short cut in the construction industry in a zone like Africa where caution is thrown to the wind. I have been there for a decade now, so I know what am talking about.

Steve Peckitt
Steve Peckitt

Good piece Dom. The term shortcut implies there is a longer way of doing something which takes more time. At the heart of this is the concept of time which in many socieities equates with money, opportunity cost, a scarce resource in busy lives. Driving fast, eating fast food, maximising earnings, etc. are in part driven by this concept. All these “benefits” of modern living can be considered as shortcuts from a risk management perspective, and result in 000s of deaths each year. Even when all key parties have discussed and developed “appropriate/reasonably practicable” solutions to control risks (often following… Read more »