Safety and the Broken Windows Theory
Safety rules are only effective if they are all enforced consistently.
The Broken Windows Theory was introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. Since its publication, the theory has had a significant influence on law enforcement practices and how we view crime.
Here is the Broken Windows Theory in a nutshell:
Picture a vacant building with a few broken windows. If not repaired, more will most likely be broken by vandals. With time, the situation will worsen as more vandalism takes place with increased frequency.
The theory is about normalized behavior and what is considered acceptable. Few people will throw rocks through the windows of an abandoned building if all of its glass is still intact. But it only takes a few shattered windows to make it seem like breaking them is normal, even acceptable, which encourages further vandalism.
So, what does this have to do with safety?
Our “Broken Windows” Problem
In 2009, one of our factories was experiencing an alarming rate of accidents. We also observed that safety rules were not enforced as consistently as they should have been. For example, due to noise on the factory floor that exceeded 90dB, hearing protection in the form of earplugs was required, but rarely used.
(Learn more in Hearing Protection PPE: Beyond the Basics.)
Everyone knew the rule, but few people followed it. I know because I became the head of safety for that facility. I rarely saw managers, supervisors, or anyone in leadership roles wear hearing protection while on the factory floor.
This was our broken window.
For years, we had tried to improve our safety outcomes without success. And it was clear why: unless we enforced all safety rules, we could not enforce any of them.
It was not uncommon for employees in this factory to ignore most safety rules. It was normal for management to ignore safety rules as well. Safety was not as important as production. Working on equipment while it was running or with guards off was normal. PPE was often not used. Lockout/tagout procedures were skipped. The list went on and on.
No one gets hurt on purpose. In our factory, however, the control measures needed to keep people safe were not being used. The result was a high number of accidents taking place on a consistent basis. I was told we had the highest accident rate of all our factories globally.
In a brainstorming session with upper management to discuss our safety problem and how to turn it around, I presented them with the Broken Windows Theory and explained that we needed to start enforcing all safety rules and elevate safety to number one in importance.
New York Crime
I had read a book by former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. When he became mayor of New York City, the crime rate was so bad citizens were removing the stereos from their own cars and placing stickers in the window that read “No Stereo” in an effort to deter thieves and vandals.
Mr. Giuliani had police officers start enforcing minor legal violations. That means writing tickets for everything from jumping a subway turnstile to jaywalking.
This set off a chain of improvements in law enforcement. The violent crime rate dropped by 56% during the eight years Giuliani served as mayor. Murder, down nearly two-thirds. Robbery, down 67%. Aggravated assault, down 28%.
There is a universal law that we all follow in our jobs. We know what is acceptable and we base our behavior accordingly. We observe what is important to management and adhere to their set values. If safety is not valued by them, it will not be valued by the workforce.
Safety requires effort. If it is not valued, no one will make that effort. Each time a safety rule is broken and not enforced, it sends a message that safety is not important. By not enforcing minor safety violations, we create a culture that does not value safety overall. The control measures designed to keep employees safe are disregarded and danger exists where there should be none.
Managers need to make sure that all safety rules are enforced at all levels.
The Lesson for Safety
Safety must be seen as important enough to enforce all safety rules. It takes effort to enforce safety rules, just as it takes effort to stay safe. This effort must begin with management and trickle down through the organization.
In 2009, we began acting like those New York City police officers. We enforced every safety rule in our factory. We made sure anyone on the factory floor wore hearing protection. High-level managers walking across the floor made sure they wore earplugs. They set a good example.
(For related reading, see Are You Wearing Your Earplugs Properly?)
We started a practice of beginning all meetings with safety as the first agenda topic (this is a practice they still follow today).
Our factory went from being the worst site for safety globally to being one of the best. We received a global safety award from the company as a result of our effort.
I have found it much more rewarding to focus our efforts on enforcing safety rules instead of spending more time conducting accident investigations. It will be one or the other. Let’s take care of our broken windows and make clear what is acceptable behavior when it comes to safety.
More from AD Safety Network
- When should you consider using custom molded earplugs?
- At what height do falls become deadly?
- Who should be responsible for rescuing fallen workers?
- What kind of training do loading dock workers need?
- How often should I inspect a loading dock?
- How is wind chill calculated?
- What is the difference between occupational safety and process safety?
- Why should rubber insulating gloves be tested?
- What happens if I tie off at the foot level with a personal SRL?
- Why is testing with a NAIL4PET accredited lab important?
- What kind of face protection do I need when using a chainsaw?
- What is the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica?
- What is silica and why is it hazardous?
- What is 'Table 1' and why is it so important?
- Video Q&A - What is a safety policy?
- What kind of fire extinguisher is best for your work site?
- How do I choose the right respirator and mask for working with silica?
- Can I wear fall protection equipment over my rainwear or winter gear?
- When do I need a cage ladder?
- What types of gloves protect your hands from hazardous chemicals?
- How come I still got hurt while wearing flame-resistant clothing?
- What dangers do workers face when working outside in the winter?
- How do I win over my most reluctant employees?
- What kinds of jobs should use disposable safety gloves?
- Is it true that safety shouldn't be a top priority?
- When are employers allowed to conduct drug and alcohol tests on their employees?
- How can I get employees more involved in the risk assessment plan?
- What are some of the indirect costs of workplace accidents?
- How often do fire extinguishers need to be inspected?
- What is the best way to store rubber safety gloves?
- How much voltage protection is needed for safety gloves used in electrical work?
- What is the difference between a safety valve and a release valve?
- When do workers have the right to refuse to work?
- What is the most overlooked item when designing Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) procedures?
- What are some of the misconceptions about heat stress and what should we do to address them?
- What tools should I tether when working at heights?
- What types of gas should I watch out for when working in a confined space?
- How do you create a culture of safety in your workplace?
- What is the difference between industrial safety and industrial hygiene?
- Is it important to get PPE assessments by trained professionals?
- What is a fault tree analysis?
- What kind of respirator cartridge should I use?
- What are the safety benefits of a whistleblower program?
- What type of safety record-keeping and recording should we be doing?
- What makes a hi-vis safety vest ANSI compliant?
- Why is it important to have air sampling done to determine my PELs?
- What is the life expectancy of fall protection equipment?
- What are some basic fall protection rules that each of my workers need to understand?
- How much clearance do I need to safely use a Leading Edge SRL?
- What is the difference between an acute hazard and a chronic hazard?
- What’s the difference between a bump test, a calibration check, and a full calibration?
- Is there any legislation regulating lone worker safety I should know about before hiring?
- What kind of fire extinguisher and accessories should be kept on hand on a factory floor?
- What can companies do to reduce their lost time injury frequency rates?
- Video Q&A - What's your safety network like?
- Video Q&A - What are the 3 levels of safety?
- Video Q&A - How do you treat a near miss?
- Does body weight affect falls differently?
- What ages are most affected by falls?
- Why do workers take risks?
- What Is the Difference Between OHSAS 18001 and 18002?
- What is the difference between lost time injury and medical treatment case?
- What is the difference between occupational health and safety and workplace health and safety?
- What is the difference between occupational health and occupational safety?
- What is the difference between a lost time injury and a disabling injury?