Are There Too Many Rules for Workplace Safety?

Rules for Workplace Safety

In this article, we present a piece of a research paper that investigates the complexity of the rules for workplace safety for US firms and compares that to the experience of the UK and Australia.

Although the paper is a complex read and is built on the author’s previous publications to develop a model of businesses’ response to rules for workplace safety, it does offer an interesting discussion on rules and how business responds.

Rules, Regulations and Goals

Rules are created to influence behaviour.

They do this by detailing what the behaviour should be or what the behaviour should achieve. Rules are usually accompanied with some form of motivation to encourage that behaviour. Rules about safety are often aimed at the behaviour of workers.

Rules can be categorised as follows:

  • Goals are outcome-based rules specifying desired outcomes, but not how to achieve them.
  • Risk-management process rules detail how to achieve the required behaviour, but not what that behaviour actually is. A safety management system is an example of a system controlling and managing risk-management rules.
  • Action/state rules provide details of the behaviour to be shown in a defined or implied situation, for example, PPE requirements. Compliance can be easily measured, for example, a machine guard can be seen to be in place without waiting to see if an accident occurs.

Regulations sit within the rules. They are rules imposed by the executive or formal Regulatory bodies supported by legislation and an explicit threat of punishment for non-compliance.

See our compliance training courses.

How Rules and Regulations Are Perceived and Acted Upon

The authors discuss the complexity of rules for workplace safety:

  • The more that regulations are written as action rules, the more rules there must be to cover a given breadth of activities or risks. This is where complaints of over-regulation and over-burdening emanate.
  • The more rules are specified at the action level, the more exceptions there will be to which the rule does not, or cannot, apply.
  • Rules at the level of goals, outcomes, and risk-management processes are subject to fewer exceptions but give less certainty of what to do or not to do and less guidance
    to the enforcer of what to approve or not approve.
  • If the outcome rule is not easily measurable, this creates confusion as to what the rule means in practice and how to comply with it.

Imposing Rules

  • Serious accidents that are not the result of a breach of existing regulations (from gaps or exceptions) or failures to interpret rules for the specific environment lead to new regulations, usually at an action-rule level, to outlaw the behaviour that led to the accident; increases the number of rules.
  • If regulators do not impose action rules for an activity, it is up to businesses to translate safety goals into specific behaviour. This requires time, motivation, competence and authority that many businesses may lack.
  • Unless a rule is imposed from above, the workers facing the risk must formulate a rule for their own behaviour. The question is how many actions become enshrined in regulations and how many stay as self-imposed rules and how many should be in either set.
  • Imposing an action rule helps with clear interpretation although limits the freedom of choice of businesses more than rules that specify goals or risk-management process rules.  Action rules must be appropriate to the situation and simple to understand.
  • For emergency situations, there is strong pressure to frame rules as action rules. However, when workers are faced with situations in which no action rules exist, it is important to devise appropriate ways of behaving to match those situations.

Action Rules

  • Moving to concrete goals or action rules, to one-size fits all model ensures easier monitoring and enforcement.
  • Action rules become imperative when many workers are required to act in a specific behaviour so that the behaviour is predictable, for example, driving on a specific side of the road.
  • The more extensive the set of action rules imposed, the more likely it is that workers and businesses will work in compliance mode and be less willing to invest in experts who can respond creatively to exceptional risks and the best method of control.
  • Where the relationship between the business and the Regulator is antagonistic the greater the conflict over the interpretation of the rules, and the more pressure there will be to define them at a specific action level, resulting in more complex rules.

See our microlearning courses for leaders, managers and supervisors.

How Does This Play Out in Small Business?

When rules for workplace safety are numerous and complex, managers of small businesses tend not to bother to find and learn about the rules.

They are more likely to assume that the rules will match their own common sense and expertise.

They rely on their own expertise in deciding how best to control hazards. In doing so, they are of the belief that they are already complying with the regulations.

However, in the event of an inspection by the Regulator, who points out non-compliance, a reactive process of negotiation follows.

The outcome of that negotiation is taken by the business to be the proper interpretation of the regulations.

Outcome-based regulation suits small businesses when the outcomes to be achieved are easily measurable and the business has the competence to decide how to meet those goals. Action rules can provide clarity and detailed guidance for those small businesses that do not have the staff or the time to devise their own action rules.

How Can Tap into Safety Help?

By law, we need to provide a safe system of work and train our people how to work safely within that environment.

We are required to train specifically about workplace hazards and continue to monitor competency and knowledge about the best way to control workplace hazards as part of the rules for workplace safety.

When managers rely on their own expertise to determine how best to control a hazard they run the risk of missing something of vital importance. When we build content in Tap into Safety we draw on the Regulations, Codes of Practice and Publications published by the Regulator to ensure the training content is informed by best practice and that it complies with the rules and regulations.

Research across a number of disciplines shows that engagement and interactivity are the keys to embedded knowledge and influence on work health and safety behaviour (click here for research on the effectiveness of using mobile devices to train).

Tap into Safety offers interactive and engaging work health and safety training that is delivered via smart devices and online. We use real workplace photographic, panoramic examples that workers relate to because they show their worksites governed by the required rules and regulations for their industry. We reinforce the control measures to address hazards and risk in these work environments using a microlearning delivery and in-built assessments. If you’d like to know more please try a free online demo.

Social Media

Contact Information

Phone: 1300 901 849

Opening Hours

Monday – Friday
8:00am – 5:00pm (AWST)
Saturday – Sunday / Public Holidays

Scroll to Top