The Rule Mill

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Rules, they are so easy to make.  So easy that safety offices are often accused of being a “Rule Mill” because they continuously produce their rule-of-the month.  

As easy as rules are to make they are just as hard to enforce.  Rules are designed to keep us safe and are made by well-meaning folks thinking through potential risks in the face of hazards.  Rules are good for all of us… so why do people break the rules when those rules are there to protect them?  I guess the more pertinent question is “how do we get people to follow the rules?”

A good friend of mine and I were traveling around the world assessing the safety culture of mining sites within a gold mining company.  We saw a lot of variance between one site and another within this company but one consistent finding was that the “mill” always had the worst safety record associated with the most challenged safety culture.

For those of you unacquainted with mining, there are two main areas of operation.  You have the folks that drive big trucks down into holes that have been dug out through explosives and shovels.  You can literally see the hazards as you ride down into these pits and respect the rules that keep you from being buried, crushed, or otherwise blown to bits.  After the earth is exposed, dug, and brought to the surface it is dropped on a conveyer and carried to the mill where huge grinding machines tear up the rock until its processed into the end product.  So the mill consists mostly of operators and maintenance folks doing dirty loud work.  And brother, when equipment in the mill goes down, all production stops and there is hell to pay.

One of the questions we were asking as we conducted confidential interviews of employees was “do your fellow employees follow the safety rules?”  We had anonymous survey data from the site’s departments that gave us an idea of the responses to come.  The answer from the pit was generally “yes” with some complaints about how the rules slow down production or are a pain in the ass.  However, without fail, across the world, the answer from the mill was basically no”. 

Until we visited a site outside of Perth Australia where mining is a way of life.  We had spent the morning interviewing the pit employees who painted a picture of a decent safety culture.  We then took a tour of the property which to these Americans was more like a safari with the kangaroo, brown eagles, and other indigenous animals of the “down under”.  But our afternoon was to be with the mill employees and we knew our pleasant day was ending.

We found ourselves across a lunch table from 5 gentlemen and we pulled out their injury and survey data.  To our amazement, they had one of the best safety records we had seen in our travels.  Their safety culture survey data was equally amazing.  Compared to the company norms, they were in the top percentile in employee perceptions of everything safety culture.  

My friend and I were skeptical when we asked our stock question, “do your fellow employees follow the safety rules?”  Their answer: “YES”.   “Really?” – “Yes”.  “You know this is confidential and no one can get in trouble, you can tell the truth” – “Yes”.  True story, they were looking at us with straight faces telling us something we knew was highly unlikely for a mill setting.

Finally my friend threw in our cards, leaned forward and said accusingly “we’ve been to almost every one of your company’s sites, all over the world, and no one, not one person interviewed from the mill said they always followed the company safety rules. Yet… here you are looking us in the eyes telling us that you do?  Why should we believe you?  Why would your mill be so very different and follow rules?”

I still remember their faces expressing a touch of puzzlement until one of them ever-so-calmly replied “Why would we break the rules?  We created them.”

Dramatic pause.

They went on to tell us of how their safety manager would meet with groups of them quarterly, 30 minutes a shot, and help them create and revise rules around the mill’s hazards.  In the end we found out their rules ended up being more stringent than those we saw at other sites… but, in their case, the rules were followed and the workforce was safer, the data showed it.

Rules turn us into police officers easily compelled to run around to “catch” people.  I’ve seen safety managers and operations supervisors intoxicated by this power.  But when I think about that crew in the mill exactly on the other side of the globe from my home I think a new approach to safety rules are in order. 

And the answer is as simple as asking a question.


Timothy Ludwig’s website is where you can read more safety culture stories and contribute your own.  Dr. Ludwig is a senior consultant with Safety Performance Solutions (SPS:, serves as a commissioner for Behavioral Safety Accreditation at the non-profit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS: and teaches behavioral psychology at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC.  If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at


Great article Tim!

Obviously, the underlying item in this story is that management at the Perth mine had created a culture that supported the input of employees enough to allow them to take on the rule making responsibility.

As an FYI, I receive many newsletters from “Behavioral experts” such as yourself, but I like yours the best because it is generally a short article that managers and supervisors are more likely to take the time to read; and your point is usually applicable to them.

Keep up the great work

Steve Love

SuperValu, Regional Director, Risk Control

Good reading. Sadly, those who need it most won't bother. This is a good "step" for those wanting to move the cultural psychology forward from "THE COMPANY'S" Safety Program to "OUR" Safety Program.

Daryl Buck, NCSO

Great article! Perhaps more companies in the U.S. should incorporate employee committees into the development and execution of rules- not just with safety, but for all initiatives! Imagine what it would do for reinforcing buy-in early on.

Jackie Bove

We write extensively on this subject. Rules don't work. If rules controlled adult human behavior, we wouldn't have two million adults in prison or seven million ex-felons. Rules do not control behavior. Safety results are largely dependent upon cultural norms, "the accepted way of behaving in a certain environment or situation." Behavior-based safety strategies rely upon the establishment of risk-free cultural norms.

Mark G. Gardner

Chief Executive Officer at Avatar Management Services, Inc.


Good article.

Here is a good link too of an article from the Harvard Business Review that discusses employee-driven decisions and motivation:

Cary Usrey

Process Improvement Leader at Predictive Solutions, formerly dbo2

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