Safety Culture Excellence®

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Safety Rules vs. Safety Principles

October 23rd, 2013

An expert on team-building once suggested that an excellent team member may occasionally break a rule but would NEVER violate a principle.  At first, these two concepts seem incongruous.  How could someone break a rule without violating a principle as well?  The simple answer is that rules are incomplete and imperfect.  They are often made with good intentions but seldom completely address all contingencies or always achieve the goal for which they were created.  Principles, on the other hand, are more universal.  They apply to all or many situations whereas rules are often specific to a particular task or circumstance.  Also, a few principles can replace a lot of rules making it easier for workers to internalize them.  

For example:  A rule might be “Never walk underneath a suspended load on a crane” or “Never walk into the path of an oncoming fork truck” or “Always walk through the pedestrian doors and not through the equipment doors.”  The principle behind these and many other rules is “Always avoid placing yourself in the path of moving or potentially moving objects.”  The more often you are in the path, the more likely you will be struck by a moving object.

Teaching workers safety principles prepares them to meet a variety of risks and to creatively apply what they have learned.  Rules tend to be “one rule to one risk” and teach workers to be mindlessly compliant.  What do they do when they face a task for which the organization has no rule or is an exception to the rule?  If they know the principle, they tend to assess the situation and devise a strategy to address it.  

Rules are guidelines to play a game.  Too many rules can make safety seem like an artificial activity governed by arbitrary guidelines.  Principles are strategic values that offer knowledge and wisdom to apply to the variety of situations we face in life and work.  They guide thinking rather than replacing it.

-Terry L. Mathis

Terry L. Mathis is the founder and CEO of ProAct Safety, an international safety and performance excellence firm. He is known for his dynamic presentations in the fields of behavioral and cultural safety, leadership, and operational performance, and is a regular speaker at ASSE, NSC, and numerous company and industry conferences. EHS Today listed Terry as a Safety Guru in ‘The 50 People Who Most Influenced EHS in 2010, 2011 and 2012-2013. He has been a frequent contributor to industry magazines for over 15 years and is the coauthor of STEPS to Safety Culture Excellence, 2013, WILEY.