Compliance versus commitment

Firms aspiring to leading-edge safety need to do more than what regulations demand

Compliance versus commitment
Nowadays, it should be known that regulatory compliance unto itself will not guarantee a safe workplace.
Dave Fennell

There was a time when the safety vision of “We will ensure regulatory compliance in our work” was considered an admirable safety goal and was the driving force for safety in many organizations. This was a great starting point for organizations in the distant past when safety was not yet a mainstream part of business.

Over the last century, safety regulations were developed as follows: Deplorable workplace conditions resulted in deaths, workers (and the families of deceased workers) raised the concerns, lawmakers responded with a regulation to address that issue and companies would respond to the new rule. This pattern has continued since the first Canadian occupational safety regulations were introduced in Ontario in 1886, right through to the turn of the 21st century. One might assume that, after more than 100 years of this identify-react-regulate approach, all the safety issues that exist have been identified and embedded in regulations and that following the current regulations will ensure a safe workplace. Regrettably, this is not the case. The regulations provide a standardized minimum, but they are not a one-size-fits-all that will prevent every incident in every workplace.

Nowadays, it should be known that regulatory compliance unto itself will not guarantee a safe workplace. Organizations aspiring to leading-edge safety will need to do more than merely what the regulations demand. They need to have safety management systems in place that address the unique hazards and risks of their workplace, as well as systems to identify and mitigate the safety issues that are not explicitly addressed in the regulations and acts.

Most occupational safety regulators in Canada understand that, despite their very comprehensive acts, regulations and codes, they have not yet identified everything that could cause an incident or an injury.

They do, however, compel employers to go beyond the regulations and do what it takes to make a safe work site with encompassing statements such as “Every employer shall ensure the health, safety and welfare of workers” (Alberta) or “Every employer shall take every precaution that is reasonable” (Nova Scotia). Through these statements, the safety regulators are acknowledging that employers have the expertise to implement best practices for their specific industry.

It should be at this point in this dissertation where we conclude that we need to be in strict regulatory compliance and we must put the additional safety management systems in place to create a safe workplace. We certainly need to do both, but do we have the resources to do both? To help with that dilemma, I want to use the analogy of a hurdle race. Our hurdles are the resources and effort needed to A) meet the regulations and B) have an effective safety management system. Our end goal in this race is to clear both these hurdles to create our safe workplace. This safety race, however, does offer us the flexibility of selecting the order in which we place the hurdles. 

Let’s start by placing the regulatory compliance hurdle first. The height of this hurdle (the effort expended to meet the regulations) will be substantial. Once we have cleared that hurdle, we can move to the next one: building an effective safety management system that will cover off all the other items we need for a safe workplace. We will find that this second hurdle requires as much effort as our first one, essentially two hurdles of equal height.

But what happens if we tackle these hurdles in the other order, putting our resources into building an effective safety management system first and then testing that we are in regulatory compliance? We find that it takes as much effort to create that safe workplace as it did in our first scenario, but when we move to our second hurdle of regulatory compliance, minimal effort is required. When we have an effective safety management system and when we do what is right in safety, we end up meeting the demands of the regulations.

An example of this in action was seen in 2006 when the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Code was updated with 1,063 additional requirements. Organizations whose safety was based only on compliance to the code needed to develop new internal standards to meet the requirements. However, one organization that had previously put its effort into ensuring it had a comprehensive and effective safety management system found it already had 1,023 of the changes covered. It simply needed to update 15 existing standards and procedures, update 14 references, add 10 new items and add one new subject — a hurdle of minimal height and effort to get over. It was a great example of how putting the effort into having an effective safety management system would ensure compliance and a safe work site.

As we move into the third decade of the 21st century, we need to establish a safety culture where we are constantly asking the question, “What will it take to keep our work sites safe?” It is no longer acceptable to simply build a safety management system with the narrow purpose of meeting regulatory compliance. We don’t have to jump as high to have a safe workplace when an effective safety management system is the first hurdle in this safety race.

Dave Fennell is a safety consultant and motivational speaker based in Cochrane, Alta. with expertise in risk tolerance, human factors and behaviour-based safety. He can be reached at [email protected] or visit