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Do More Rules Make Us Safer?

Let’s begin this month’s Tailgate with a short quiz. Ask your employees these two questions:

  1. When is the last time you read the company’s safety rule book?
  2. If you had to take a test on its contents, would you pass?

It’s possible some of our employees are not as well-versed in the company’s safety rules as we would like because the rule book may be long and cover everything from office safety to working on overhead lines. Yet we base many of our safe work practices on our employees truly understanding these rules.

It’s also possible that we have fooled ourselves into thinking our employees have read the rule book, know and understand it, and believe in the written safety rules. The truth is, your company’s rule book could be causing problems when it comes to safety. How? Here are some possibilities.

Not all rules are known or followed. I’m aware of a cooperative that disciplined an employee for not adhering to a safety rule; the employee honestly stated, “I didn’t even know that was a rule.” In another instance, I asked a line superintendent about his cooperative’s grounding practice and then read him the rule from the cooperative’s rule book. He responded, “Oh, we don’t do it that way.”

The book includes rules that don’t tell you anything. One rule book I reviewed stated, “Disposal of trash and debris shall be done in an approved environmentally safe manner.” Yes, but what exactly does that mean? What is a worker supposed to do?

Rules may only be used to discipline. Too often, the only time we drag out the safety rule book is for disciplinary purposes. Once, after being disciplined, an employee stated, “I know Joe isn’t following this other rule – why isn’t he getting disciplined?” The reality is, he was right. Often you can look around and find an employee who didn’t follow a rule to the letter that day.

The rule book is too cumbersome for temporary workers. If you have a lengthy safety rule book, what do you have your temporary workers review? You can’t hand them the book and expect that they will read and understand all of it, yet we need them to conduct themselves in a safe manner. 

There are language barriers within the company. The safety rule book can create issues for workers who do not fluently read and speak the language the book is written in.

More rules are added to the book to address accidents. Too many times when I read the outcome of an accident investigation, the result is to implement more rules. I don’t know of one person who comes to work to do an unsafe job, and oftentimes it is an experienced worker who knew the rules who was involved in the accident. So, if they knew the rules and didn’t follow them, how are more rules going to fix the problem?

Four-Step Action Plan
At Minnesota Rural Electric Association, we realized that having more rules wasn’t necessarily making our employees any safer, so we adopted what we refer to as 24 Basic Life-Saving Rules (see We believe this is a fresh approach to safety rules that helps to strengthen our safety culture and save lives. You can also use this approach within your organization. Start by determining what safety outcomes you really want, and then take these four actions to move safety forward.

Action 1: Adopt basic life-saving rules that set the foundation for your safe work practices. Ensure employees are trained to clearly know, understand and commit to these rules.

Action 2: Teach employees to recognize hazards in any environment. Employees make a great number of decisions each day, and we can’t make enough rules to cover all aspects of the job. We need to count on our employees’ experience, skills and initiatives.

Action 3: Set your standard of safety and guide your actions toward that standard. I often say it’s not about rules – it’s about the standard of safety we own.

Action 4: Train employees to think ahead of their actions about what outcomes might occur.

These steps engage employees through proactive actions and initiatives. Only with an engaged workforce can we achieve the outcome we seek – strengthening our safety culture. And we don’t need a lengthy safety rule book to make it happen.

About the Author: Lidia Dilley Jacobson is the director of safety and loss control for the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, which serves 50 rural electric cooperatives in Minnesota. She is an experienced safety professional with 32 years in the industries of explosives, nuclear and electricity, and her work has involved technical, compliance-based and managerial responsibilities. Jacobson’s last 12 years have been focused on the electrical industry.

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