Compliance - is it a barrier for health & safety performance?

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

This article explores why sensible risk management, rather than compliance, is needed to manage health & safety risks and bring about exemplary health and safety performance.

As I sat down, I asked him; "Is health & safety a barrier for your business?" Without hesitation, he said, "Absolutely, yes, health and safety is a barrier for my business." I wasn't surprised, I expected this response. Not because he is one of those managers who think health & safety is an additional burden to business but because he gets it. He understands that complying with "safety rules", which do not contribute to delivering a safer workplace, is actually doing the safety brand a disservice and it is a barrier.

“Dam Rules” the sign read, and it was damn funny. The sign had been written by an American Soldier during the Iraq War in 2004. The sign was posted on the Haditha Dam wall, West of Baghdad. On it was written: “Safety rules to live by". Behold, there it was, clear as day, all personnel are required to wear a PT belt whilst inside the "wire". For years the PT belt safety requirement had been the joke of the US Military. The requirement to wear the PT belt was making a mockery of safety. To put you in the picture - the “PT belt” is a reflective belt worn around the waist of American Soldiers during physical training. According to the literature, the PT belt was the result of a horrible incident at Lackland Air Force Base, in 1996, in which several airmen were struck by a moving vehicle during a morning run. Originally the belt was intended to be worn during Physical Training (PT) after dark, this control measure perhaps makes a little sense. However, this response was typical of a knee jerk reaction. Traffic or pedestrian controls may have been better controls altogether. When safety went mad, however, was when troops were ordered to wear the PT belts at all times, when moving around on bases. No one seems to know who ordered this but it seems it must have been the "Good-Idea Fairies", The US Navy SEALs warns us against these “fairies”.

And then the PT belt went to war! The absurdness of wearing a reflective belt in a combat zone still amazes me even after all these years. In a combat environment, the last thing you want is a reflective belt. No wonder the satirical duffel blog took aim at the PT belt for years.

“I am a reflective belt of the United States of America. I stand for safety, but more for hate and discontent.” The Duffel Blog

If this happens in the World of Safety of Uncle Sam, then it is no wonder that safety has become a joke in regular business too and compliance stands accused for sure. I'm not talking compliance with legal requirements or with safety which actually saves lives, like the requirement of fall restraint or fall arrest systems when working at height. I am referring to the type of compliance which “stands” for safety but breeds disgust and discontent.

In 2019, twenty-three years after the Lackland Air Force Base incident, finally someone (the Army secretary) questioned the absurd rule and deemed it absolutely useless to wear PT belts during daytime activities. Hopefully, common sense prevails and the Army will look at more practical ways to protect pedestrians, like ground guides, pedestrian walkways, traffic lights, etc. PT belts are still required after dark but only where there is a risk of being run over by vehicles and there’s no practical way of managing the risk. This Risk-based approach makes more sense than a blanket rule which breaks down the safety brand and relegating it to the fairy box.

A little closer to home, a 2013 report by Martin, Jenkins & Associates Limited, for the Independent New Zealand Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, stated that: “Compliance and Enforcement should be branded separately from Health & Safety. The desire for safety should not be driven by the desire to be safeguarded against prosecution or punishment. To create a brand value that will influence people to change their behaviour, safety should be a trusted brand based on sensible risk management and not on compliance.”

“We all react to policemen knocking at our door, and think we have done something” Martin, Jenkins & Associates Limited

During my MSc research, I concluded that compliance does not always result in good health and safety performance. It was clear from the research program respondents’ replies that they were confident that they were achieving legal and organisational compliance. The physical performance assessments, however, in all cases but one, painted a different picture. The health and safety performance achieved in terms of ‘providing a safe workplace’ was poor. My research also included people's perception of safety and compliance. Leaders from organisations that partook in the research, thought that they were performing well in the health and safety arena. In reality, it just proved that, in most cases, compliance alone was just not enough to ensure a safe workplace.

The literature reviewed suggested that in order to ‘perform well’, organisations must first understand and acknowledge the risks in order to develop a desire (motivation) to control them. An example of this was a study conducted on the security arrangements in the build-up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. At this point on the timeline, there was simply no perception of risk in terms of the possibility of a terror attack in New Zealand. The motivation for increased security measures was seemingly focussed on the desire to prevent the possibility of food poisoning of the All Blacks. This motivation seems to originate from an alleged incident 16 years earlier in South Africa. Even today there is still a widespread belief that the All Blacks had been deliberately poisoned in South Africa which led to the Springboks winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup. In fact, in 2011, hotel managers thought that they were compliant and taking care of all risks as is evident from the report.

“We just take it as part of our normal business … we are (not) treating these games any differently” (Peter, et al., 2014)

Fast forward to 2020 and there would be little argument that future security measures should include the risk of terror attacks. Unfortunately, it seems that something must happen before action is taken. The same study undertaken in 2011, cautioned against complacency. Tragically in 2019, New Zealand lost her innocence during the first real large terror attack on her soil. With this innocence lost, New Zealand will never be the same. We will possibly never know if the attack could have been prevented. What is, however, necessary, is to take reasonable steps to ensure all proportionate practical measures are undertaken to minimise the risk of a similar attack.

Getting back to my research. I reviewed the performance of the procedures followed by organisations in the execution of their BAU (business as usual) tasks. Only one team from the study group of approximately 20, had a procedure which, when followed, would almost guarantee success every time. Of course, people make mistakes and it would be irresponsible to suggest that a procedure will guarantee safety when we know it requires a lot more than that. What this demonstrated was that these teams all complied to their way of work but did not understand the risks, nor the controls needed to work safely.

Compliance alone will never achieve good health and safety performance. What is needed, is the motivation to identify and understand risks and to control them proportionally to the risk itself. To achieve this, we need a paradigm cultural shift from a compliance-based approach to health and safety to an approach of going beyond compliance. People in positions of influence should challenge the "safety rules" which do not contribute to establishment of a safer world of work. Unfortunately, in many organisations, safety is still largely seen as something that needs to be done so we can get on with our work. Health & Safety isn't an add on to work, it is part and parcel of the package deal. For Health and Safety to establish and sustain a safer world of work it should be integrated as part of the business. Click here to read how a

Safety Improvement Group Network could help to embed safety into business practice.

Back to the manager in the first paragraph, who considered health and safety to be a barrier to his business. This is the type of manager who, once he understands the risks involved and the controls needed, will question the proportionality and practicability of the implications and choose what is best for the business. When he does this, he takes ownership of the management thereof. That's sensible risk management, It is the Health & Safety Advisors’ role to guide managers there.

Here’s a thought for Health & Safety Practitioners: this may be the time to close the fairy box, pack away the PT belts and provide pragmatic advice, thereby earning the badge of trusted advisors.

If you are keen to contribute to my blog articles please let me know below or by direct message. I am keen to hear about compliance requirements which do not contribute to a safer world. In the next edition of my blog, I will explore beyond compliance and what that means, please let me know your thoughts.

#SensibleRiskManagement #Safetyimporvementgroup #safetyprofessional #SafetyII #Safetydifferently


Davis, R. C. et al., An Assessment of the Preparedness of Large Retail Malls to Prevent and Respond to Terrorist Attack, s.l.: s.n.

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Farrel, P. & Arewa, A. O., 2012. A review of compliance with health and safety regulations and economic performance in small and medium construction enterprises. Procs 28th Annual ARCOM Conference, Issue 28th, pp. 423-432.

Frankham, J., 2012. She'll be right. New Zealand Geographic, Issue 113.

Glover, S. et al., 2013. Workplace Health and Safety Culture Change., s.l.: Martin, Jenkins & Associates Limited.

Hollnagel, E., 2014. Safety - I and Safety - II: The Past and Future of Safety Management. 20160226 Hrsg. Croydon: CRC Press.

HSE, 2008. The determinants of compliance with laws and regulations with special reference to health and safety, London: HSE Books.

Martin, Jenkins & Associates Limited, 2013. Workplace Health and Safety Culture Change, s.l.: Martin, Jenkins & Associates Limited.

Peter, C., Paulston, J. & Losekoot, E., 2014. Terrorism, rugby, and hospitality: She'll be right. Journal of Destination Marketing & Management, Band 3, p. 254.

Report of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, 2006. Report to the House of Representatives for the year ended 30 June 2006, Wellington: NZSIS.

Royal Commission, 2012. Royal Commission, on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy, Wellington: NZ Government.