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Toward Universal Compliance defines “compliance” as:

  1. the act of conforming, acquiescing or yielding.
  2. a tendency to yield readily to others, especially in a weak and subservient way.
  3. conformity; accordance: in compliance with orders.
  4.  cooperation or obedience: Compliance with the law is expected of all.

The applicable definitions of “safety” are:

  1. the state of being safe; freedom from the occurrence or risk of injury, danger.
  2. the quality of averting or not causing injury, danger or loss.

Safety professionals often debate the relative merits of applying compliance and safety in accident/injury prevention in the workplace. One group will promote an argument that MSHA regulations are based on a long history of accident and injury experience and are designed to guide miners and operators in maintaining conditions and procedures that will mitigate the causal factors leading to those injuries.

Another group will respond that accident prevention must be risk-based and that such an approach will undoubtedly be much more stringent in defining safe working conditions and procedures. Focus on arbitrary compliance demands actually detracts from the human effort required to apply a robust risk-based accident-prevention process.

Somewhere between these extremes rests the common understanding that compliance has some merit in accident prevention, but that it has its limits. There are way too many unscripted situations in mining that simply do not have a corresponding MSHA rule. Therefore compliance must be supplemented with accident prevention systems that effectively control the risks inherent in the tasks we perform.

While the discussion continues, reliance on compliance continues to grow – rapidly. I speak not of a massive increase in MSHA regulation, but rather a host of tier 2, tier 3 and tier 4 rules promulgated at the state, corporate and site levels to address the disparities inherent in the MSHA safety standards and local accident experience.

We have adopted MSHA’s methods of rulemaking: (1) Identify accident causes or risks and (2) Reactively devise a safety rule that will prevent or mitigate the effects of future incidents. Enforcement is the tool used to assure compliance. We’ve become so inundated with rules that we can’t remember them all. So we carry rulebooks around in our pockets so that when the need arises, we can quickly reference the details of applicable rule and then act accordingly.

Consider now how the motivation that drives compliance differs from the motivation that drives risk-based safety.

We comply because it is expected. We do not have to analyze, think or decide. We just follow the rule. If we fail to comply, we are held accountable. Conversely, if we focus on risk-based safety, we will be obliged to observe, identify, analyze and decide how to control the risks identified. Success means prevention of injury or property damage.

Two miners are performing workplace inspections separately. One observes the colored tag (identifies the unit has passed the monthly inspection) on the handle of a fire extinguisher and checks the item off the workplace exam list. He complied in that he checked the fire extinguisher.

Another miner also observed the colored tag but then proceeds to brush the dust off the gauge and observed that the fire extinguisher is discharged. He takes steps to get it replaced. The first miner was engaged only in compliance. The second, understood that there was a logical reason for checking the fire extinguisher beyond that of placing a checkmark on an examination report. He now has the assurance that, if needed, the fire extinguisher will perform.

In reality, we do need both compliance and risk-based safety systems. But we should be cautious about over-using rules. We are all tempted to take shortcuts, to accept a risk that we would not force on others. Compliance with smart rules is essential in establishing a standard of safety that helps to guide us through those challenging decisions.

Rules that make safety sense are more apt to be followed. With supervisory guidance, workers can also learn to apply individual (and small group) risk assessment and they will ultimately create innovative and effective controls. They can do this independent of or within the structure of realistic compliance demands. Encouragement and practice serve only to refine and improve the accident prevention effect.

If you ask your workers why they comply with the rules of safety, how will they respond? It’s something to think about.