Columns / Closing Time

Who runs the rule mill?

The best bet is when workers create the rules

November 4, 2013
Rules, they are so easy to make.  So easy that safety offices are often accused of being a “Rule Mill” because they continuously produce their rule-of-the month.  As easy as rules are to make, they are just as hard to enforce.  Rules are designed to keep us safe and are made by well-meaning folks thinking through potential risks in the face of hazards.  Rules are good for all of us… so why do people break the rules when those rules are there to protect them?

 I guess the more pertinent question is “how do we get people to follow the rules?”

The mill is always the worst

A good friend of mine and I were traveling around the world assessing the safety culture of mining sites within a gold mining company.  We saw a lot of variance between one site and another within this company, but one consistent finding was that the “mill” always had the worst safety record associated with the most challenged safety culture.

For those of you unacquainted with mining, there are two main areas of operation.  You have the folks that drive big trucks down into holes that have been dug out through explosives and shovels.  You can literally see the hazards as you ride down into these pits and respect the rules that keep you from being buried, crushed, or otherwise blown to bits. 

After the earth is exposed, dug, and brought to the surface, it is dropped on a conveyer and carried to the mill where huge grinding machines tear up the rock until its processed into the end product.  So the mill consists mostly of operators and maintenance folks doing dirty loud work.  And brother, when equipment in the mill goes down, all production stops and there is hell to pay.

One of the questions we were asking as we conducted confidential interviews of employees was “do your fellow employees follow the safety rules?”  The answer from the pit was generally “yes” with some complaints about how the rules slow down production or are a pain in the ass.  However, without fail, across the world, the answer from the mill was basically “no.” 

What a surprise…

Until we visited a site outside of Perth, Australia where mining is a way of life.  The pit employees painted a picture of a decent safety culture.  Our afternoon was to be with the mill employees.

We found ourselves across a lunch table from five gentlemen and we pulled out their injury and survey data.  To our amazement, they had one of the best safety records we had seen in our travels.  Their safety culture survey data was equally amazing.  Compared to the company norms, they were in the top percentile in employee perceptions of everything safety culture. 

My friend and I were skeptical when we asked our stock question, “Do your fellow employees follow the safety rules?”  Their answer: “YES”.  

“Really?”

 “Yes.” 

“You know this is confidential and no one can get in trouble, you can tell the truth.”

“Yes.” 

True story; they looked at us with straight faces telling us something we knew was highly unlikely for a mill setting.

Let’s get real

Finally my friend threw in our cards, leaned forward and said accusingly, “We’ve been to almost every one of your company’s sites, all over the world, and no one, not one person interviewed from the mill said they always followed the company safety rules. Yet… here you are looking us in the eyes telling us that you do?  Why should we believe you? 

I still remember their faces expressing a touch of puzzlement until one of them ever-so-calmly replied “Why would we break the rules?  We created them.”

Dramatic pause.

They went on to tell us of how their safety manager would meet with groups of them quarterly, 30 minutes a shot, and help them create and revise rules around the mill’s hazards.  In the end we found out their rules were more stringent than those we saw at other sites… but, in their case, the rules were followed and the workforce was safer; the data showed it.

Rules turn us into police officers easily compelled to run around to “catch” people.  I’ve seen safety managers and operations supervisors intoxicated by this power.  But when I think about that crew in the mill exactly on the other side of the globe from my home, I think a new approach to safety rules are in order. 

And the answer is as simple as asking a question.

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