12th May 2022
Health and safety is one of those departments in the workplace that has a mixed reputation. From my experience with our clients, if you’re an H&S professional, you’ll be well aware that safety is not always met with enthusiasm, big smiles, and initiative-taking responses.
Sometimes, it goes the other way. With an abundance of forms, checklists, and repetitive slogans to help remind your people about the importance of safety protocol, it’s easy for the real essence of safety culture to get lost amid a pile of clutter.
Safety clutter, that is. Safety clutter is the term that’s given to the accumulation of documents, activities, roles, and protocols all performed in the name of safety but do little to contribute to improving the safety of the organisation.
You've likely had some degree of experience with safety clutter. The presence of unnecessary safety practices places a burden on your staff and risks draining time, resources, and valuable attention that can be spent on other tasks.
How does safety clutter happen?
I'll be the first to say it: it’s relatively easy for safety clutter to appear in an organisation. As safety is so heavily regulated, organisations engage in systematised processes to maintain regulatory compliance - essentially, to be seen doing something regarding safety, and often to ensure that a visual trail is noticeable in the event of an incident.
Safety clutter is not always intended badly, or a sign of a safety-reactive organisation which only cares about the bare-bones of compliance. Engaging in a well-intentioned but poorly executed safety initiative can be the starting point of safety clutter. Or leaving health and safety on the back burner, as a bottom-priority box to tick, is an easy way to create more clutter and trip your people up.
What are some examples of safety clutter?
I came across this research paper, that helped define safety clutter and followed several organisations to examine how safety clutter arises. The researchers categorised the most frequently occurring instances of safety clutter and how it might manifest in the workplace - I've listed some of the most pertinent examples below.
Safety conservatism occurs when we operate under the assumption that the strictest rules provide the most safety. The misguided approach merely tends to make people frustrated with rigid rule structures and harsh punishments, and often only detracts from safety. In low-risk environments such as administrative roles, this approach tends to deter workers from best safety practices.
Duplication refers to the instance where an organisation has two kinds of forms, systems or processes that achieve the same result. Increasing the number of unnecessary safety practices quite literally adds to the pile of growing safety clutter.
Symbolic application refers to the highly unnecessary, borderline patronising safety practices seen in workplaces. When rules initially intended for high-risk operational activities are used in low-risk administrative settings, the ‘safety gone mad’ mentality is encouraged. This might look like a warning about the hot water hazard in the office kitchen tap.
Attempted simplification is when a blanket rule is used to avoid the effort of applying case-by-case assessments. When a situation that often changes - and safety depends on these changes - has a blanket safety rule, the rule can detract from the outcome of safer practice.
Least-common-denominator refers to the type of clutter where everyone is forced, regardless of position or experience, to undergo the same safety training that’s been designed for new inductees. In an obvious outcome, doing this risks condescending your experienced talent and belittling their own knowledge.
What are the implications of safety clutter?
Aside from the obvious - that safety clutter does nothing to change some people’s generally weary opinions of health and safety - there are some glaring implications of ignoring a looming pile of clutter and letting it build in your workplace.
- 1. Who’s responsible for what?
Ownership is affected - when you clutter up the processes with multiple unnecessary forms, undeniably painful bureaucracy and general confusion, safety gets complicated when it doesn’t have to be. Individual ownership of individual safety is compromised and making safe decisions is left for ‘someone else’ because safety feels like a chore.
- 2. Trust is damaged
An accumulation of safety clutter damages the trust and weakens relationships between management, safety advisors and employees by forcing people to do tasks for what seems to be ‘the sake of doing something’. If managers can’t understand that filling out the safety clutter checklist frustrates and slows down employees, then how can the employees trust that their manager has their best interests at heart?
Moreover, if employees only undergo safety procedures because they have to tick the box, how can a manager or safety advisor trust that information is true and an accurate snapshot of an organisation’s safety?
- 3. No one likes anything to do with safety
With an excess of safety clutter, safety gets lumped into one category: unhelpful. As a result, valuable safety procedures that aren’t safety clutter are far less respected - and therefore impactful - because they’re associated with the unhelpful procedures.
The final outcome? Safety across the board is compromised.
How can we practically address and minimise safety clutter?
If any of the above examples have rung a bell and remind you of a situation in your organisation, first remember that you’re not alone. If there's one thing that's clear from my experience, it's that safety is a constant work in progress, and a perfect safety culture does not evolve overnight.
Primarily, being aware of safety clutter and the multiple ways it can manifest in the workplace is key. Sometimes it’s difficult to put your finger on why a particular safety practice doesn’t seem to be working, so learning how to categorise it might help.
Furthermore, the researchers suggest that we take the same criteria for removing safety practices, as we do for adding them. Typically, they noticed, organisations require strong evidence that a safety practice is not effective in order to justify removing it. However, when it comes to adding a new protocol or system, far less evidence is required to justify its presence.
This discrepancy creates clutter.
Start with opening the floor and having valuable conversations about safety clutter. Promote the notion that an environment that talks and questions their safety practices does so because they care about employee safety - not just to challenge how things are done for the sake of it.
Prune the low-hanging fruit. Ask employees what the silliest thing they do in the name of safety is. Find out the least helpful practices, and trial removing it from the organisation - and examine the effects on your safety culture.
Ensuring that we avoid safety being met with rolled eyes is crucial for full buy-in from employees. It’s essential that we consider which safety practices do add value to the workplace, and which are unnecessary and accumulate quickly in the corner.
Safety clutter can take shape in many different forms and confuses employees about who’s responsible for what, while simultaneously damaging trust between upper management and frontline workers, and continuing to damage H&S’s reputation in the workplace.
With this being said, do a Marie Kondo and clear out the clutter!