26 Feb, 2020

Defining and implementing golden rules

Large organisations which are seeking to harmonise HSE management across their different processes and sites often look, among other actions, to deploy a set of rules such as ‘Golden Safety Rules’.  But do they work?  Is this the right name for them? And how do you go about naming, defining, implementing and enforcing them?

Is the ‘rules’ word a turn-off right from the beginning? Does making them ‘golden’ elevate them to the right spot? Is that spot weakened if you paint every rule with gold? Should only those rules which help to reduce the risk of serious injury and death be given the golden touch? Or should you name them by making the benefit explicit (Life Saving Rules?) Should you up the fear factor with the threat of punishment from a higher power (Cardinal Rules?). And if you call them something like ‘Safety Non-negotiables’ are you prepared to follow through on the punishment if these rules are violated?

Setting and enforcing rules is not an easy concept – after all, we are all human and the last thing a company wants to do is to take away the ability of people to think for themselves, to identify and understand risk and use their own initiative.

So, why are rules needed?

If we don’t follow rules, accidents will happen.

Studies of off-shore installations found that ‘failure to follow rules’ is the third most important perceived cause of accidents (after ‘not thinking the job through’ and ‘carelessness’). And Dutch studies of the chemical industry regarding loss of containment also found that 50% of incidents related to problems with procedure.

How effective are rules?

But just having the rules isn’t enough! A study of safety rules in the Dutch railways showed that:

  • only 3% of workers used rules often, and almost 50% never!
  • 79% thought there were too many rules
  • 95% thought that if they kept to the rules, work couldn’t be completed in time.

Similarly, a survey of 400 operators and managers in the chemical industry cited these reasons for not following procedures:

  • 62% said that, if followed to the letter, the job couldn’t be done in time
  • 70% expressed the view that people assume they know what’s in the procedure
  • 34% resented being told how to do their job and saw rules as a restriction and a slur on their competence.

It seems sadly ironic that people errors, born out of human fallibility or false assumptions, seem to be the main reasons for having such ‘Golden Rules’ and yet people’s attitude towards them can also be one of the biggest barriers to their successful implementation – which is strange really, given that Golden Rules are ultimately there to protect people!  It means organisations need to really help people to understand WHY this matters, as well as WHAT it is they need to do.

The successful definition and implementation of Golden Rules, means doing everything you can to get your people on-side. You need to understand who are the rule breakers and who are the rule takers? Or as a study by Hudson put it, who are the ‘wolves’? and who are the ‘sheep’? Or perhaps worse still,  who are the wolves in sheep’s clothing? i.e. Those that say they follow the rules, but they don’t do it! Engaging all of these people in the issue will be critical – involve the wolves in the defining process and communicate and engage with the following sheep so that they understand the very clear procedures!

At BB&A, we work with many large complex organisations who, understandably, put the health and safety of their people at the top of their priority list. Whether these businesses are in mining, manufacturing, petrochemicals, paper production, utilities – they all have a need and a desire to do what’s right to help protect their people and to minimise the risks of anyone getting hurt. They all recognise the need to engage all employees in these ‘rules’ – making sure that everyone understands the issue and acts accordingly.

If you’d like to find out more about our approach to Safety Rules and how we might be able to help you define, develop and implement yours, click on the link below for a taster of some of our insights into the challenge. Do get in touch if you’d like to see the rest of our thinking or find out more about what we could do for you.


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