Why People Break Health and Safety Rules

The past year has shown that getting people to follow advice and rules designed for their own safety is not as simple as it may seem, even when non-compliance could mean death. This human resistance to complying with health and safety rules is a challenge in health and safety.

How Rule Breaking Can spread

Personal attitude, the environment employees operate in, and external pressure drive adherence to rules. A worker’s ability to follow rules is fluid and dynamic. It can change throughout the day and across a working week.

We cannot deny that sometimes employers push workers to produce more. Often this can involve cutting corners. Sometimes fellow employees will see these corner-cutters get praised for keeping the company competitive.

Individuals not breaking rules often brood over the actions of those who do. They may even complain about it to fellow workers. However, they rarely report the rule-breaking they witness, fearing unwanted consequences from fellow employees or management. They may also start taking shortcuts with their own work, and an environment develops where eventually someone’s luck runs out and an accident happens.

Why Employees Don’t Follow Health and Safety Rules

Employees break rules for a variety of reasons. We can break these into three categories:

  1. The quality of the rules
    The rules are or seem inconsistent
    There are too many rules
    There is a lack of agreement about rules, either amongst employees or with management
    The rules do not seem to make sense
    Following safety rules takes too much time or makes hitting targets harder
    The rules do not apply to me
  2. Perception of Risk
    An actual or perceived inconsistency in consequences or disciplinary measures when rules are broken
    People are “getting away with it”. There are no consequences for not following the rules.
    “Never had an accident, never will have.”
  3. Conforming Behaviour
    A belief that “no one around here follows the rules.”
    A belief that “everyone breaks a rule sometimes.”
    A belief that management does not care rules are not being followed

The Psychology Of Rule Breaking

People often behave differently when in a group compared to how they would behave when alone. They often feel compelled to join in with what others are doing or saying, even when they don’t particularly want to.

People may be driven to conform even when doing so may put themselves and others at risk. In a study performed in 1968, male undergraduate volunteers were asked to complete a questionnaire. Some volunteers were told to do the task alone in a room. Others were put in a room with two people who were working for the psychologists. After a while smoke was sent pouring into the room. Three-quarters of the lone subjects investigated and reported the smoke. However, in the room where the two people working for the psychologists ignored the smoke, only one in 10 got up to report it. It appears even when we are in a potentially dangerous situation, if others do not respond appropriately, we will also be reluctant to act.

This could also explain why when people see others not using safety equipment or not socially distancing and it goes unopposed, they are less likely to follow the rules or insist on them being followed. We rarely want others to feel we are overreacting or being disruptive. Nor do we want to make other people feel bad.

This reluctance leads to another problem. If there is no challenge when a rule is first broken, it becomes harder to do anything proactive. People will question whether they should challenge the second, third, and fourth person since nothing was said before. Suddenly, there is an even greater reluctance to challenge the rule-breaking.

Another challenge to consistently following health and safety rules is pluralistic ignorance. This is the belief that we must be the only one feeling uncomfortable with something that’s happening. However, if rules are being broken, it is likely others will feel uneasy about the situation too. The problem is that they, like you, may stay quiet in order to conform or avoid criticism.

Another factor in breaking rules is perceived invulnerability. This is the belief that we are in less danger than other people. If people are told a health or safety statistic putting them at above average risk, they will accept the message for other people, but not for themselves. A study published in 2018 showed that people perceive that they and their friends are less likely to suffer negative life events than strangers are. For example, people will change their beliefs when learning that their chance of developing cancer during their lifetime is lower than expected, but resist revising these same beliefs if they learn that their chance of developing cancer is higher than expected. This tendency also applies when people learn statistics about accidents or the chance of catching coronavirus.

Improving Compliance

The key to compliance is education, clear rules, consistency, and strong enforcement.

Conducting and documenting employee training on safety, company policies and work procedures should be the first step a new employee experiences. Including safety in induction training is an opportunity to emphasize that employee safety is a priority that is taken seriously. It is a crucial step in ensuring employees know how much the company values each employee and their safety.

Health and safety rules should be consistent, and the reasons for enforcing them fully explained. They should also be manageable, practical, and not an overwhelming number for each task. It should also be clear when they apply and to whom.

There needs to be consistency, too. If safety is the norm, people’s willingness to conform will help maintain that status.

It is also advisable to consider various non-compliance scenarios and how to address them. We have seen how important it is to speak up as soon as someone breaks a rule. This overcomes the problem that doing the right thing becomes harder if unsafe behaviour goes unchallenged. Speaking up also communicates standards to everyone else, and as others probably feel uncomfortable too, taking action promptly will help other people do the same.

The best way to address a rule transgression is to frame it as being about the needs of colleagues. Framing the issue in this way helps people recognize their choices may affect others who are at risk, prompting them to empathise and behave more carefully and compassionately.

Strong, consistent leadership, a positive culture, and effective systems, processes and procedures are just some factors that help to determine the level of compliance to health and safety rules. Communication and mutual respect built from nurtured relationships are important too.

New Broom Training

We offer a range of health and safety training courses and consultancy services. Contact us on 01795 500816 or via email at to find out more.