Violations are common...So don't be surprised when people break rules

human factors oil and gas safety safety culture Dec 22, 2015

"An online survey drawing on 50 key offshore companies saw 34% of respondents saying their company needed to offer additional operational and technical training. Worryingly, 50% found it difficult to say ‘no’ to a client or senior staff demanding actions that might compromise safety. Some 78% of respondents believed that commercial pressures could influence safety." - Original Article referring to OSV and Workboat, 2015,

"78% of the study population [offshore workers] have either reported violating or will have no problem with violation when the time comes. Only 22.5% remain with a reasonable guarantee that they have not or will not bend the rules." - Hudson et al, (1998). Bending the rules: Managing violation in the workplace.

Given the above, it should come as no surprise that people break rules in the workplace. Humans are creative, and in the main, want to get work done as efficiently as possible, which means they sometimes circumvent the safety measures or rules in place there to protect them or the process. The problem is that sometimes those rules don't allow both efficiency and effectiveness to exist at the same time, there is an "efficiency-thoroughness-trade-off" (ETTO). This trade-off might be because of external pressures such as limited resources (people/equipment), money, time or because those working (or leading/supervising) have not been correctly trained to undertake the task effectively.

When operators are breaking rules, forcing compliance may not be the best immediate option. Yes, it might mean that immediate safety is returned, but the workers will gradually migrate back to the unstable position and the real risk will return. A much better option is to understand why workers are having to operate in the manner they are by speaking to them and listening to their answers.

However, for this to happen, there needs to be clear channels of communication whereby workers can really speak their minds as to the current state of things. Saying that your door is open and you can come in is not enough. Leaders have to show that they will listen and act upon suggestions. Acting could be mean saying no, but most importantly, the leadership need to explain why the suggestion cannot be taken forward. Engaging and communicating with followers makes the team more inclusive, and therefore they are more likely to understand why the rules are in place and what the implications could be for breaking them.

Fundamentally, rules will continue to be broken, but no-one should break a rule if they don't understand why it is there. Violations in of themselves don't always lead to catastrophe, it normally requires other failures or changes to have occurred. Failures that you assume haven't happened!