3 Tips For A Better Safety Program For Fieldwork

It’s a common discussion in groups where security is a top priority (like financial institutions, IT professionals, and insurance providers); are risks managed best with rules, or with a broader wisdom that can address a range of possibilities? 

Rules are specific, and so is their application. Wisdom, on the other hand, has the intelligence to innovate, and be responsive.  This responsiveness is an attractive feature for a safety management plan, and forms the foundation of what industry calls a  “risk-based” approach to safety planning.

Establishing a safety plan (that uses rules) on a broader foundation (that can innovate) is not a new idea.  

In fact, it dates back to Aristotle and, more recently, World War II British RAF Fighter Pilot, Sir Douglas Bader: “Rules are for the guidance of the wise… and the blind obedience of fools.”

Today, this age-old approach is generating buzz in the health and safety world.

When Safety Program Rules Fail Us

Sandy Cooper, Canadian Registered Safety Professional, describes the difference between the two approaches from a health and safety perspective, in a past LinkedIn article (“Safe even when the rules don’t make me”):

“Where rule-based safety can be understood as ‘do it because it is written’, risk-based safety requires a bit more thought and understanding of the hazards and the probability that a given consequence will occur. Using ladder safety as an example we can see both rule-based safety and risk-based safety at work.

“Workers must wear a harness and be tied off at heights above six feet in many provinces in Canada. Why ‘must’ they? Because their respective provincial safety regulations state it. For many companies this is the message that gets communicated – wear a harness and tie off because the law says so. And it works for a large portion of the workforce.”

What Sandy asks next is the main challenge: what if the ladder is 5.5 feet, or 4 feet?  What if it’s on a moving structure, like a boat? 

The reality is that a situation exists where the rule will fail to achieve its intended end game.  Someone is going to get hurt, even though they were obeying the rules.

This is where risk-based safety planning steps in.

Raven Rescue Tower Rescue

A Better Way

John A. Wheeler is the research director at the IT research and advisory behemoth, Gartner.*  He says, “Organizations must change this reactive, check-the-box mindset and start viewing compliance as a risk.” 

John’s view points out that in a risk-based approach to safety, compliance requirements will be met by the safety program, whereas safety will not necessarily be provided by compliance alone.

Even those banks that want you to store your millions in their offshore accounts advertise the superiority of risk-based planning on their website. We’ve copied a comparison chart (see below) from one of these banks. The chart is flavored with all the spices of a saucy sales pitch, but the meat of the content remains valid – risk-based planning requires an entirely different level of mental engagement than simple compliance or blind obedience.

Risk Based Safety compared to Compliance Based Safety

3 Tips For A Better Safety Program For Fieldwork

So if this strategy already exists… if there really is an approach out there that will keep people from getting hurt even when they’re obeying the rules… why isn’t everyone jumping??

“The problem,” reports InfoSecurity Magazine, “is that compliance is a legal and/or regulatory requirement,” while safety… is not (until you become criminally negligent, that is). 

Consider all our clients that work in remote settings, away from advanced life support. Most of these individuals are only required to carry an occupational first aid certification, and their employers feel trapped – they know their field crews work in remote areas where occupational first aid doesn’t address the situations they find themselves in, but occupational first aid is what is legally required.

A wilderness-based first aid course would establish an innovate foundation that would ultimately keep the field crews safer. Unfortunately, the safety program for fieldwork that governs their training and certification doesn’t support this innovation.

Raven Rescue Safety Medical remote worksite

Luckily, laws and regulations aren’t the only ways to inspire action. In many cases, there are realistic ways to integrate risk-based safety without breaking the bank or it becoming onerous. 

Tip #1

First of all, Sandy Cooper reminds readers that, “there is a time and place for both types of safety… the two can overlap.”

Don’t throw rule-based safety out the window. 

As the chart from the offshore bank advertised, risk-based safety is resource heavy – so ration it. Keep rule-based safety around, and selectively apply it where it can really work.

Risk-based safety is particularly applicable to the dynamic environments in which our technical rescue clients work.

Tip #2

Second, keep the right hierarchy in mind.

InfoSecurity Magazine’s approach suggests that rule-based safety should be treated as one of the hazards within an overall risk-based approach to safety. It doesn’t make rule-based safety go away, but it ensures that it is given its rightful position as a part of, and not a substitute for, safety.

Tip #3

Finally, if you’re ever in doubt, look to your corporate history.

Sandy Cooper suggests that you identify your best story of when a worker didn’t use risk-based safety and justified their actions because the rules allowed them to proceed.  How did it work out? What would have happened if the environment had been just a little different? 

Take the possibilities to heart, because one day the environment will be different.

It’s oversimplified, but true enough: staying alive, while getting the job done, is the end game.  Rules make a strong attempt to herd workers towards this end goal, but when something unforeseen makes waves, rules and compliance will fall short.

Risk-based safety planning can be used to effectively navigate the invariable flux a safety program for fieldwork encounters in our high-risk workplaces.

* For the purposes of this article, we’ve changed Wheeler’s quotes to read “safety” where he used “security”.