Exceptions to safety rules: 5 things not to say

by on March 22, 2011 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Workplace Safety Network

You know that some workplace tasks may require exceptions to normal safety procedures.

How those “exceptions” are communicated, though, is tricky. Supervisors must clearly express:

  • why the exception is needed, and
  • what new safety precautions will be taken instead.

Sending the wrong message
If supervisors fail to communicate both these things the right way, workers will likely take home the message that it’s okay to break the rules sometimes. That can lead to a more casual attitude toward safety, and more rules broken, until supervisors have to intervene.

Example: A worker must retrieve snow removal machinery, but has to cross an iced-up area to get to it. How the supervisor responds is crucial.

Here are things the supervisor will be tempted to say that will damage your safety culture:

1. ‘OK, but be careful’
Why it’s wrong: “Be careful” means “We’re breaking the rules, but don’t get hurt.”

The incorrect message it sends: “If you pay particular attention and we get away with it, there’s no harm done.” Problem is, the next time, the worker may think, “I can break the rule if I’m careful.” That doesn’t build the safety-first culture you want.

Better: “Our rule is workers can’t walk over icy areas. We’re going to have to get some bags of salt or sand the iced areas down first – even if we have to go buy it at the hardware store, before we walk over that ice to retrieve the snow removal equipment.”

2. ‘Just this once’
Sometimes you get caught unaware. A crew member violates a safety rule, or equipment fails, and everyone wants to react immediately. So the supervisor says, “OK, just this once.”

Why it’s wrong: Once a worker hears this, he or she feels it’s okay to employ “just this once” the next time. In a high-hazard situation, such as a confined rescue, that can be fatal. Even in less hazardous situations, like using a piece of equipment with a broken guard, it presents a serious risk.

Better: The supervisor says, “Not even this once. But we can attempt to fix that guard and get maintenance up here for an emergency work order.” This reinforces the safety culture of identifying hazards and thinking about how to apply them, even in emergency situations.

3. ‘Just finish it up’
Ever drive a car that’s low on gas and think, “If I speed up I’ll get to a station sooner” You know the temptation. Of course, you should go slower to conserve gas, but that’s not how it feels.

When something goes wrong late in a shift, the supervisor may think, “If I just finish these last few pieces, no problem.” So he says, “Finish it up and we’ll take care of it tomorrow.”

Why that’s wrong: It teaches workers to follow the wrong instincts, rather than learn to step back when something goes wrong and reassess the situation.

Better: “Yeah, I know we’re almost done here, but we’re going to have to fix this problem before we go forward. We can come up with a temporary and safe workaround.”

Example: Since this often happens late in a shift, the operator can stay a few minutes later and use someone else’s equipment. Or perhaps others can assist using operable equipment. That will help build teamwork in a safety context.

4. ‘What else can we do?’
Sometimes, supervisors can’t figure out how to safely perform a function. This usually occurs during equipment set-up or when seeing a hazard first thing in the morning.

In the earlier example, if the snowblower is under a tarp covered with the previous night’s snow and ice, the supervisor can just say, “What else can we do?” Same goes if there a small oil leak the night before and you need to go through the slick area to get the cleanup equipment.

Better: “Wait a second. Let’s make sure we’ve got the leak stopped, and see if there is anything here that can give us better traction, so we don’t fall trying to get the cleaning equipment.” Usually, there’s a safe workaround.

This improves your safety culture by forcing workers to think.

5. ‘We definitely have to fix this (but not now)’
Perhaps the most insidious of these culture-damaging supervisor statements occurs when supervisors acknowledge the problem, but put off fixing it: “We definitely ought to do something about this, but we can’t right now.”

Why it’s wrong: Replace the word “can’t” with “won’t” and you’ll see the problem. The supervisor is really saying, “We won’t do anything about this.” And acting as if saying that will ward off bad luck.

Better: “We don’t have the supplies right now to fix this, and I don’t see a workaround. We’re going to have to put this on hold until we get the safety supplies we need.”

Suggestion: Remind supervisors to come to you if there’s a difficult safety situation that will require delays. Better they come to you than let the situation fester – because once it becomes “someday,” safety often gets put on hold indefinitely.

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