Put simply, safety clutter is all that safety stuff we expect people to do – to comply with, to follow – but which adds very little value.
You might assume that every safety requirement and process in your organisation adds value to the safety of work. But too often these requirements turn bureaucratic, the kind of transactional safety activity involving safety forms, requirements, compliance and administration activities.
I’m talking about all those forms, folders and filing cabinets filled with the kind of tick-the-box requirements that make workers roll their eyes and call safety professionals the fun police, or something even more derogatory.
As we defined it in our paper1, “Safety clutter is the accumulation and persistence of safety rules, procedures and practices that do not contribute to the safety of work.”
Other than being annoying, safety clutter becomes a real organisational problem due to the drain on time and resources it creates, the negative impact it has on organisational climate and communication, and therefore the reduced effectiveness of value-adding safety activity.
But what if your organisation is happy to spend money on people filling out an abundance of forms? We could take the position that safety is our first priority, so even if everything doesn’t add value to safety, we’re prepared to spend the time and effort doing all of this stuff.
Well, ironically (and importantly), in relation to not doing anything about it, safety clutter can be detrimental to safety management. Recent academic studies1,2 into identifying and removing safety clutter reveal that safety clutter has real and measurable negative effects on safety.
In other words, safety clutter gets in the way of getting work done safely! Safety clutter in your organisation will:
- reduce individual ownership of safety and operational decisions;
- remove flexibility to adapt work to changing risk context;
- erode trust between management, safety advisors and the workforce;
- increase goal conflict between safety and productivity; and
- compromise the effectiveness of valuable safety activity.
Paperwork is no defence
Why do organisations develop and implement procedures, rules and requirements for safety that have no useful benefit to safer outcomes? And why do these rules stay in our organisations for years beyond any use they might once have had?
One of the answers is regulatory compliance. Your organisations may believe that if they have all these rules and procedures and activities and documents for safety, then all bases have been covered when it comes to legal compliance.
But a number of prominent safety lawyers and independent disaster investigations have clearly told us that paperwork is not due diligence and it’s certainly not a legal defence if there’s ever an accident.
There’s a difference between safety as imagined (the completion of safety work) and safety as done by workers (the safety of work). How much safety is created through risk assessment? And how much safety is created through the experience and performance of work?
Managing safety properly is the legal defence – not piles of safety paperwork.
A double affliction
The other answer behind the mounting pile of procedural manuals and processing forms is that organisations too easily add new pieces into the system. Every time there’s an incident, a meeting, an audit or new safety improvement plan, it’s probable that safety clutter is created.
Safety clutter is no one’s fault, and it is not the fault of safety professionals. Organisations do need to be compliant with the law, after all.
The problem is, we are all doubly afflicted – first, by the infinite opportunities to add new safety procedures into our organisations, and second, by the chronic lack of time and processes to critically evaluate and remove the things from the system that are not working.
But you really should do something about it.
A black and white issue?
Another question you might have is, can a requirement or a practice be safety clutter in one situation and not in another? The short answer is yes, and this is problematic.
There’s always a contestable boundary between what is and is not clutter, based on how the evidence of efficacy for an individual item is evaluated and the level of performance variability of the activity.
There’s also a grey area between clutter and not-clutter where items have a safety benefit under some circumstances, but are frequently applied in circumstances or ways where this benefit isn’t realised.
Checklists are an example of a practice in this grey area. There’s considerable evidence that checklists can be very effective in some situations, but also evidence that they’re sometimes not effective at all.
It’s likely there are many examples within your organisation of safety requirements which can effectively contribute to the safety of work one day, and to safety clutter the next. So, the real question we should be asking is, how we can make our safety work activities less likely to ever become safety clutter?
Conversations about clutter
Safety clutter is not inevitable, but it is impossible to eliminate because that’s the way organisations function. However, there are clear steps we can take to avoid creating excess safety pressure from adding unhelpful safety requirements and processes into the system. In other words, to disengage the ratchet effect.
Safety professionals shouldn’t be afraid to introduce a discussion around safety clutter into management teams and the workforce. Listen to their answers. Listen when people tell you that a process or form is rubbish. Process owners won’t enjoy hearing that their process is ineffective or ignored, but it’s better than them not hearing it and believing in a different reality – that helps no one.
Encourage conversations about safety at all levels. What you think as a safety professional is important is likely to be different from the experience of workers who complete the task. Be curious. Ask people to share their honest experience of safety management activities and whether they believe they have an impact.
Run an experiment
Ask people directly what they would like to start doing/stop doing, or do more of/do less of, when it comes to safety activities. Encourage managers to ask their workers, “What is the least valuable thing I ask you to do here each day?”
You will soon identify some low hanging fruit, namely any safety activity where there’s a:
- low contribution to the safety of work;
- high confidence in this low contribution; and
- high consensus in the low contribution and high confidence.
Where there’s clear consensus among all stakeholders that a process or activity is safety clutter, there’s an opportunity to remove or significantly re-engineer it. Think of it as a micro-experiment.
1 Rae, A. J., Provan, D. J., Weber, D. E., & Dekker, S. W. A. (2018). Safety clutter: the accumulation and persistence of ‘safety’ work that does not contribute to operational safety. Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 16(2), 194-211.
2 Rae, A., & Provan, D. (2019). Safety work versus the safety of work. Safety science, 111, 119-127.
Melbourne-based David Provan is managing director of Forge Works. He will be a keynote speaker at the 2021 Safeguard National Health & Safety Conference.