In the beginning

When I started as a young HSE advisor way back in the early 1990s it was quite common when I got a question about working conditions and occupational safety issues that I would turn to the really good guidance documents that the Dutch Health and Safety Inspectorate had issued. More often than not I would find a good answer or recommendation there.

This was before the renewed Health and Safety at Work Act came with its paragraph about risk assessment and evaluation. Risk had been at the core of the safety profession for a long time, of course, but I think it wasn’t until halfway the 1990s that the majority (in The Netherlands, at least) came to recognize the importance of systematic study of hazards and risks. And so my approach initially was just like I had seen around me: more rule based than risk based.

Referring to the guidance from the Inspectorate had the added bonus that it would give power and backing to the words of a rather junior advisor. Or so I thought. Having grown in the profession (and otherwise) I’ve come to adopt another approach and another view on the matter.

Fast forward two decades

A while ago I attended a conference where one of the HSE professionals presented the results of one of his recent projects. The problem dealt with a relatively novel way of working that among other things allows for greater flexibility and more efficient handling of cases on location. The new method also has some clear drawbacks with regard to ergonomics and working conditions.

We expected to hear how to deal with the latter, but the answer was quite sobering. The presenter started waving with some regulations, mentioned the regulator and revealed that he had found out that employees were allowed to do this activity at a maximum of two hours a day. This posed a particular problem because the call centre distributing the work would need to have a registration in order to avoid giving work to people that had “used up their quota”. I was simultaneously baffled and fuming and spoke up accordingly.

Episodes like these annoy me in particular for three reasons:

  1. It approaches the problem from the wrong angle.
  2. It communicates a false sense of certainty and oversimplifies a relatively complex issue by reducing it to a single number.
  3. Things like these give Safety/HSE a bad name.

Let’s look at these three statements in more detail.

1: Approaching from the wrong angle

In the whole of the presentation not once the concept of risk was addressed, except implicitly in the sense that it was ‘forbidden to work longer’ because this could cause harm. Having matured from my early 1990s practices I would say that as a rule of thumb most HSE questions should start with some kind of risk assessment - not necessarily a formal one, mind you.

I find the risk approach much more useful than looking for ‘a rule’; especially in communication to the people you’re supposed to help. Instead of giving a “because the rule says so” answer that may be totally incomprehensible to people, it discusses the problem from a logical point of view - not in the last place their point of view. More importantly, it is also the approach that will lead you to finding a good solution that addresses the problem in a proper way.

What a lot of people apparently don’t realize is that regulations almost per definition are compromises and often driven by political and other agendas. Following a threshold value does not necessarily means that you’re ‘safe’. The only really safe value for exposure to asbestos fibres would be zero, for example, but this is in many areas not realistic through background exposure. Regulations often take into account this kind of considerations.

To illustrate the point further I’d like to mention John Adams’s discussion of the legal limits for drinking (one of his many thought provoking observations) in his fabulous book “Risk”. Firstly the way the human body is affected by alcohol depends on many things and is very different for each person. If the legal limit is x promille this will be an average (or even arbitrary) value and not the ‘real’ safe level.

Secondly, a legal limit may give the illusion that it’s okay to drink and drive, as long as you are below this limit. As said, alcohol affects different people in different ways and some people may be affected a lot, even if they are below the legal limit. The legal limit is thereby often a crude rule of thumb and again the only really safe level would be zero.

Then there is another aspect that often is misunderstood. I really doubt that the rule that was mentioned by the presenter is actually a proper rule. I suspect it rather to be guidance given by the regulator. There’s a fine difference between regulation (“you shall”) and guidance (“it would be wise if you”), but many HSE professionals fail to appreciate that. Many think that everything said by the regulator is law. It’s not.

2: Reducing a complex problem to a number

As one can see from the extremely simplified case description above there are many sides to the problem. On the negative side the novel working method is ergonomically far from optimal, but it has other strong benefits like greater flexibility, efficiency and there are also safety and health gains, for example because it reduces the need to travel back to base or involving other crews.

The “but only two hours a day” approach singles out the (possible) negative effects of the novel way of working without any context or looking at other effects, positive and negative. A correct way of looking at the problem would be to look holistically at the difference between the old and new situation (which inherently includes the context) and then see what the net decrease or increase in risk is. Risk management should be a constant trade-off between various objectives, not a mindless striving for zero risk with total disregard for other factors.

Besides, I’m not quite sure how this would work. Is it 2 hours per 24 hours, 2 hours per working day or 2 hours per calendar day? The latter would mean that you actually could do the activity 4 hours on a night shift, if you take the rule in its most literal sense. The rule gives a number as if it were a certainty; as if 1 hour 59 minutes is good, while 2 hours and 3 minutes means that you’re in serious trouble with permanent disablement looming in the future. Sorry to disappoint some, but safety isn’t an exact science, so it usually doesn’t work that way.

Actually, I doubt that the activity in question will be performed two hours in a stretch ever. The job these people are doing in-between involves lot of other activities that probably will relieve the physical stress built up and help to level out negative effects of ergonomically suboptimal working conditions. But then, take in consideration that I’m no ergonomist or physiotherapist, so I may be mistaken (another reason for the holistic approach and risk assessment as the basis).

3: Giving Safety a bad name

It’s bad enough if we hear things like these during a conference where only other HSE professionals are present who hopefully speak up in a critical way, as I did. But it’s really bad if things like this are uttered to people (managers or operational personnel ‘out there’) that may have a critical stance towards all things HSE in the first place.

Concluding that the employer had to get track of what his employees were doing so that he could manage the exposure means adding a new layer of bureaucracy. As if we haven’t enough of those in the HSE world, most of them adding little or no safety. In this case HSE did exactly what some people expect them to do: come with another procedure and make work even more difficult without any good reason. That’s what it means to be doing safety TO people instead of WITH them.

It also blows the problem out of proportions, like this is the most important activity that has to be monitored. Well, I’m sure that it’s not. These people are involved in much riskier activities on a daily basis. Only driving to and from their jobs is probably an activity with higher risk without any special monitoring or preventive measures.

Finally, looking up “what is allowed” is a very, very, very lazy way of doing safety. The guidance documents from the Dutch inspectorate that I mentioned earlier included a disclaimer that said something in the line of: “This is how we interpret the law, if you follow these guidelines you are compliant, but of course you are welcome to find other, as safe, or even better ways”. Safety guidance is not meant as a barrier for innovation. The catch, of course, is that the burden of proof rests on you. It requires some hard work to take the risk based approach and look at the problem from the bigger picture, with proper expertise involved, not in the least the people performing the job! But it’s usually worth it.

Let’s face it. Advice like “only for two hours a day” is what gives the Safety and HSE profession a bad name.

Earlier during the conference someone asked why it was that HSE professionals often aren’t invited to take part in projects from operations and that there seem to be two separate tracks: the operational track and the HSE track. Well, it’s exactly answers like “You are only allowed to this two times per day” that makes sure HSE professionals are NOT invited to think about new solutions!

Please, let’s not do things that way!


Disclaimer: I don’t want to talk trash about the colleague in question, because I’m pretty sure that he sincerely wants to do a good job in the best interest of the employees whose health and wellbeing he is trying to protect. This was probably not his finest moment and we should use the opportunity to learn from it and avoid these pitfalls. It should be our aim to help people doing a better and safer job, after all, and not be a straightjacket that provides so many constraints that they rather don’t ask HSE professionals for help. Also we should help fellow HSE professionals getting out of the rule based routine and teach young and beginning HSE professionals approaching things in the right way in the first place. This would have saved me a couple of years of finding out for myself…


Also published on Linkedin.