When Rules Aren’t Followed – Addressing Safety Non-Compliance

Whats the Best Way of Treating Employees who Violate Safety Rules?

So you’ve noticed some concerning behaviors among workers, namely, the safety rules and regulations of your workplace aren’t being followed. Yikes!  This type of problem is one that, while extremely irksome for many business owners and safety managers, seems like a relatively simple fix:  Tell workers to stop cutting corners or face disciplinary action, right?

While this is the gut reaction for many, the reality of solving such a problem can be much more complex. This was the impression left after viewing a LinkedIn discussion started by Josia Matare, a HSE professional from Zimbabwe.

Matare asked others to weigh in on how they handle non-compliance, and some of the responses just might surprise you. Sure, you got some gruff and simplistic “three strikes you’re out” rhetoric – and there sometimes isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that – but some other commenters hinted at deeper, underlying problems that might be a more important area to focus on first. Since I considered this discussion a (quick) must-read for health and safety pros, this article will highlight some of the more important insights.

Why Non-Compliance Occurs

One of the hardest things about correctly handling non-compliance with regards to safety rules and regulations is that there can be just so darn many reasons for not following the rules in the first place; these range from the understandable to the completely ridiculous, but in any event should be soused out from the beginning.

“First things first,” as poster Jonathan Tavill puts it, you need to get to the root, not the surface or ‘obvious’ conclusion, of your problem.

“…understand why someone is not working according to the rules and regulations.

Ask questions to understand the root cause. Discuss the problem with the person or department. Is it ignorance? Do the rules and regulations form a hindrance to the persons performance (i.e. the person feels forced to take shortcuts otherwise it is impossible for them to do their job)?” ”

Most important to remember here is that you need to talk with the employee(s) and their managers directly – and probably separately – to try and honestly understand the root cause of your problems. The best way to do this is to, at least on first offenses, approach all involved with a good attitude aimed at genuinely improving safety culture, not at taking punitive action against ‘rule breakers.’

Let’s look at a couple of the possibilities that Tavill brings up:

Ignorance of expectations

While the quintessential “I didn’t know!” might seem like the oldest copout in the book, understand that your workers might just be telling the truth. Think about how you’re communicating expectations and the possible ways in which they might get lost, such as…

  1. Employee training occurring so long ago or infrequently that specifics are forgotten.
  2. Signage or written rule expectations aren’t clear enough.
  3. Employees following the lead of those with seniority; if those workers aren’t following the rules, those looking up to them for guidance on the job might not either.

One user, Geoff Brokenshire, also points out that sometimes visuals or graphics can help to clarify written instruction, especially in situations where employees may feel rushed; a picture might tell them what they need to know, whereas they might just ignore a paragraph of text.

Try to ensure that your rules and regulations are communicated clearly, and also regularly. Training updates should be occurring annually or as needed to keep the details of workplace safety fresh in the minds of all of your workers.


Another commonly cited reason for not following the rules to a T is that workers will complain that they impair their ability to do their job. In some cases, they might feel they can’t do it at all while wearing certain PPE or following a certain procedure.

In these cases, you need to be able to gauge what you’re actually losing in productivity and if adjustments can be made that allow you to comply with the necessary regulations while making life easier on your workforce. Maybe frequent cleanings or checks of a certain area are excessive and are a dragging down the capabilities of your employees; look for ways in which you can reach a compromise.

Another sub-set of this problem is specific complains about protection equipment. These need to be taken very seriously because PPE that inhibits a worker’s field of vision, situational awareness, or mobility to an extreme or unintended extend can quickly become a bigger risk than a protection.

PPE is always a touchy subject with workers; sometimes they simply don’t like the way something looks, sometimes its physically cumbersome, and sometimes they just don’t like the time it takes to suit up and down between jobs. In any event, your employees are your lifeblood, and PPE that works for them is more important than PPE that works for you.

Ordering different styles, sizes, and fits of this equipment based on worker feedback can drastically improve compliance rates, and the non-usage or improper usage of PPE will likely constitute a large chunk of your safety violations in the first place.


On Punishment

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Sometimes, it just seems inevitable that you have to take some kind of disciplinary action to keep order. There are sometimes just a few bad apples, after all.

While the behavior of one individual isn’t necessarily reflective of the company or management, a trend in the need to apply such measures is indicative of a much greater problem, as user John Norton-Doyle points out:

“ That is not to say that at times discipline is not required but this should be a rarity and in effect any case of discipline is essentially a management failure, its a lose-lose situation.”

You always want to be working toward a solution that keeps everyone happy, rather than setting an example. The problem with jumping straight to punitive action is that you may suppress a problem rather than actually solving it, but be none the wiser.

For example, if someone gets in trouble for violating a burdensome safety rule, others may start complying just so they don’t get punished or fired as well, but that doesn’t take away the underlying problem. They could very well still be working around a very real problem with their safety equipment or with the rules in place, but until it (inevitably) boils over, you might be under the impression that all problems have been solved.

On Changing the Rules

More than one user pointed out that, sometimes, rules and regulations just plain don’t make sense. Sometimes practicality and perception are hard to accurately gauge when the rules are made from somewhere other than the workfloor that they actually affect, and that means there’s a need for constant tweaking and evaluation.

Oftentimes, workplaces go above and beyond OSHA regulations to make sure they’re “really, really covered. ”  The thing to remember is that OSHA already errs on the side of caution, and while we’d never want to advocate against safety, additional measures sometimes aren’t actually providing a benefit. When they cross into the realm of actually hindering performance, both you and your employees have a problem on your hands.

Main Discussion takeaways

Keep an open mind when approaching those perceived as breaking the rules, and do your best to effectively root out the cause of your compliance problems, rather than simply snuffing out the symptoms.

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