Recently, I’ve been thinking about compliance with safety and health requirements of law and regulation. What factors encourage compliance among workplace players (employers, supervisors, workers)? I think there are three main categories of organizations to consider:
- those with strong safety cultures,
- those who are uninformed, and
- everyone else.
The easiest category to consider is the first one. Many workplaces are safe and secure form injury, illness and disease because of a pervasive safety culture. By this I mean that those present in the workplace put safety and health top-of-mind all the time. Supervisors continually incorporate safety-oriented content in 75% or more of their interactions with those they work with; workers are constantly alert to hazards and empowered to act to correct and control them; managers view violations of health and safety requirements as defects in their processes, training or supervision; firms act to eliminate safety and health risks to the vital human resources and the reputation of the firm. This shared culture is the predominant motivator and compliance is a natural byproduct of that culture.
The second category is characterized by a lack of safety culture without any malice or intention to violate health and safety requirements. In a sense, this group has the most to learn and gain from an intervention such as an inspection by an occupational safety and health officer. Often, these are newer firms struggling to gain markets, to expand or just to keep the business going. For this group, it is a lack of knowledge or skill rather than an active or willful disregard for health and safety that characterizes the lack of compliance. I include in this group those who may be well intentioned and even striving to develop a strong safety culture but ill equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to make this happen.
The final category includes everyone else. Members of this category have knowledge of the health and safety requirements, the skills and abilities to comply with the health ans safety standards, but lack the internal motivation to act on what they know. For this group, compliance is more of a risk calculation:
Is the Cost of compliance less than [the probability of being caught in non-compliance times the cost of sanction(s)]? If so, comply... If not, continue in non-compliance.
A roofing firm might know that fall protection is required and even have the equipment and training to use it; however, if the risk of an inspection is negligible or, if an inspection does occur, the value of any penalty is low or non-existent, compliance may be seen as an added cost. (I shall assume that the value of non-compliance results in little or no increase in production).
For this category, there are few routes to compliance. Compliance may come as an unintended consequence or benefit of a change in process (a new machine comes with an automatic power off feature built in, for example) or if the cost equation makes non-compliance very costly.
Simple consequences of the equation follow:
- If there are no penalties, there would be no motivation for this group to comply.
- If the penalties are substantial but the probability of detection is very low (there are no inspectors in the region or the workplace is not easily observed), then there is little or no incentive for compliance.
One way to increase the perceived probability of detection is announce an inspection blitz of a region or industry. Another is to increase the publicity around detected violations and penalty assessments. This does not increase either the number of inspections or the value of individual penalties for detected violations but it does increase the perception or expectation about the cost of non-compliance.
Another strategy is to increase the cost of non-compliance by a broader interpretation of penalties and sanctions. Loss of reputation through higher-profile sanctions may achieve this. OSHA in the US posts inspection reports on line. You enter a firm name and a state; you get a list of inspection reports and can determine if there are any penalties for serious violations of health and safety standards. To the extent that potential customers of a firm use this information to decide on whom they will do business with, the perceived cost of non-compliance will rise.
Ideally, we can move all workplaces into the first group—those with great safety cultures. Hopefully, a using these concepts to design compliance strategies will more workplaces toward that goal.