Culture of compliance versus culture of safety

Quote fom a New York Times story about the collapse of a construction waste dump in China that killed at least 69 people. How many U.S. workplaces does it also describe?

“It’s quite often that the goal is to get approval, rather than be truly in compliance with the spirit, whether it’s the environmental impact assessment or safety,” said Dali L. Yang, a professor at the University of Chicago who has studied China’s efforts to strengthen safety regulation. “They think, ‘I can get away with this, so why bother?’ ”

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. I’ve come across both types of companies in my career: Those looking for compliance (only) and those who want a culture of safety.

    Compliance is “easy.” It’s immediately measurable by both the employer and the regulator: Find a worn extension cord on an inspection? A worker not wearing hearing protection or one that has a beard in a respirator? Easily found violations; check and move on.

    Culture is not no easy at the start but becomes easier as employers exercise top-down leadership. Group leaders emphasize safe work practices but also include regulatory compliance to reduce their exposure to violations.

    Generally speaking, those employers that emphasize a strong safety culture, from the leadership down through the workforce often get regulatory compliance thrown in as bonus.

  2. Yes, in companies there can be strong focus on compliance to easily defined “rules” first and foremost.

    My academic lab once had a inspection from industry chemists as a way of exposing us unwashed rubes to the exacting and superior standards of industry. The “violations” they found were all based on our practice of reusing sharps like needles and razors.

    They provided no comments on the truly hazardous materials and processes we worked with — things like organometallics, EtO, HF, piranha, autocatalytic purifications, and the like. So instead of becoming safer with the things that could kill us — and had hospitalized one of us in the past — our lab safety culture shifted to things which could at worst, scratch us.

    I don’t know if the waste collapse in China is the best example of compliance over culture — but my focus is always on the most consequential safety elements. I don’t understand the focus some safety rules place on relatively minor potential accidents.