Absolutely Critical, Cardinal, Comply or Die Crap…

I watched a man plug an office telephone into his computer today. It didn’t connect him to the internet as he had hoped. Strange how that phone plug didn’t want to fit into the Ethernet port. That doesn’t have much to do with this post, but it was funny.

I also happened upon a live bee in a urinal this afternoon. The guy next to me didn’t seem to want to talk about it, but that was just as well. My only thought was to keep it dry because aiming for it might lead to an accident report I don’t want to write.

Both of those events got me thinking. Jokingly I thought about how funny it would be if there was a “don’t pee on the bee” rule. Or a zero tolerance policy on inserting the wrong thing into your Ethernet port. I can get a little sarcastic and cynical, so I’m pretty careful not to blurt those things out. In my mind I had a quick conversation with myself and made sure I didn’t repeat any of it out loud (it’s only crazy if people hear you answering yourself). On the flip side, those events were too good not to share. So, why not put them on the internet, right?

Absolute rules will ABSOLUTELY cause problems

I’d be willing to bet money that every Safety Professional has, at one time or another, made a rule or restriction aimed at helping avoid injuries. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that unless the rule is arbitrary But sometimes we take rules to the extreme. We make them “absolute” or “cardinal” or “critical” or any other adjective that sounds important. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of emphasis either. The problems start when we make them into religious commandments that cannot be broken without summoning the wrath of the almighty safety gods.

Before I get much further into this, let me just make one thing clear. This isn’t a case for safety anarchy where no one is held accountable for their actions. I firmly believe we should be personally responsible for what we do. You can read more about that IN THIS POST. My point is much more basic than that. It’s simply the idea that organizations don’t need those type of fear-mongering edicts in order to be successful.

If you get the basics right…

Every time I’ve worked with an organization that enacted heavy-handed rules (and there have been more than I would prefer), there were three distinct similarities:

  • The rules were rooted in discipline: if you do this, you get that punishment.
  • The subject of the rules (fall protection, LOTO, etc.) was not supported by a robust, foundational process: people did not have all the tools they needed to succeed.
  • Enforcement was inconsistent: nothing is ever as black and white as a rule maker wants it to be.

To put it in perspective, imagine how you would feel if you were given an unclear instruction then threatened with discipline if you did not execute the task satisfactorily. It would be like retaking that college physics course where Professor Simmons gave the whole class the final exam on day one just to gauge your level of understanding (completely hypothetical). It would also cause a whole lot of stress and anxiety that might lead to mistakes you wouldn’t ordinarily make.

It’s not about the fear though

My goal here isn’t to prove to anyone that “cardinal rules” are a bad thing (they are though). That’s an argument that I really don’t have the energy to get into today. Especially if I were talking to one of those all-too-common safety zelots. The point is that they’re unnecessary.

Think about it. If you built a program that was so robust and well thought out that it is ingrained in your organization, you wouldn’t need to back it up with a threat. If your training was truly effective and your procedures were easy to execute, how many less opportunities would you have to walk someone out for violating the rules?

When your foundation is strong, fear isn’t necessary. You may still find a person here and there who just doesn’t want to participate. Those issues need to be dealt with. But with a system that people participate in and want to use, they won’t happen nearly as much.

The problem, is that building something like that takes hard work and tons of time. It’s way easier to give someone a final warning for getting stung by a bee on the end of their… you get my drift.

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